… it would be reorganizing it in one specific way. That way would allow me to more mindfully enact The Three Noble Principles in my daily unfolding world. It is this bit of disorganized neural network that seems to underlie much of the suffering that I have experienced over the years; and it is something that I see others having to unwittingly endure in their own lives as well.

Motor Cortex is in Red

Motor Cortex is in Red

The Three Noble Principles were first introduced to America by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa in the mid-1970s. They’re essentially mindfulness practices intended to go with us as we move throughout our day. Whatever we happen to be engaged in, we attempt to frame it in three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. The Three Noble Principles simply advise doing our best to make the beginning, middle and end … all good. Buddhists have a prescribed way, a working definition of “good”, but as a neuroscience educator knowing how unique and complex each of our brains are, I advocate for creatively constructing our own definition of good as part of a doctrine-free creativity practice. I suspect that simply setting this kind of mindful intention has significant neural integrative benefits, all by itself.

Blogging Good

To illustrate: I try to practice The Three Noble Principles when I write this blog. As part of Good at the Beginning, I usually craft the first drafts early in the morning upon awakening (as I’m typing this sentence it’s 4:03 AM). I start by taking a few minutes to relax by breathing a few mindful breaths. I might use a “settling mechanism” like this one. Or a stimulating message/encounter like Tripping the Light. Then I simply write “what wants to be written” with little regard for anything but what my fingers actually do with the motor movement they produce courtesy of my motor cortex and my cerebellum. That’s a first draft. When that’s complete for the moment, I consider that to be the middle. I pause, rest for a bit, find the place of appreciation in me for the fact that my brain and fingers still work and then hang in that internal space for a bit. Next comes the cleanup draft where I read back through what I’ve written, correct for typos and grammar and check to see that what I’ve written actually makes beginning sense. If it’s clear that what I’ve written might actually serve a few readers out there, I consider it “Good at the End.” For this part of the writing process. Any number of additional edits will follow (this blog’s already up to Edit 16).

Attentional Intelligence

Research shows that one of the results of this kind of mindful activity is increasing numbers of cells and connections in the brain, especially in the area of the prefrontal cortex. Those added connections seem to result in an increase in Attentional Intelligence. Attentional Intelligence is the ability to place my attention where I want it, when I want it, for as long as I want it. Attentional Intelligence seems to be a problem in the world: this research suggests that as many as 94% of human beings struggles with it. Being recurringly mindful to make things good at the beginning, good at the middle and good at the end, can serve as a great way to keep my mind from wandering back and forth to the future and forth and back to the past. It’s a great way to curb dissociation and to keep me focused on what’s right in front of me, right here, right now. The more I’m able to focus on right here, right now, the less my Word Brain is able to vomit up anxiety-generating fear thoughts. Which at my advancing age, is pretty easy to do: I have daily reminders in the form of aches and pains in this joint or that muscle or such and such a spot, lump or bump, that I’m moving towards my body’s eventual end. I want that end to be as good as it can be.

Irish Goodbyes

Historically, what has been most difficult for me to manage has been “good at the end.” Growing up I was famous for my Irish Goodbyes. For those of you who don’t know what Irish Goodbyes are, they’re the opposite of Jewish Goodbyes, which tend to go on interminably. Irish Goodbyes are best characterized as “now you see me, now you don’t.” At some point in a gathering I would simply head off into the sunset without letting anyone know I was leaving. The primary reason for this kind of exit was essentially because it was the only tool available to me to use to manage the vulnerability and hyper-arousal too often triggered by groups of people. Having to seek someone out and say goodbye would only add to the stress load. In other words, my adrenals were the boss of me.

Irish Goodbye
Irish Goodbye

But of course, I’m not the only one who struggles with Good at the End. Bad at the End happens every day all over the world. Most often our unskillfulness and unpracticed engagement with it shows up when we are faced with someone (especially ourselves) on the end-of-life trajectory. All kinds of unskillful, disorganized behaviors can find their way into the mix at the end of life. A telling example from my own life: when my mother was dying, I never made it to the hospital as she was taking her last breath (in my defense, she lived on the other side of the Diablo Range and she and I had a lot of unfinished business that her brain – severely compromised by early and lifelong trauma – made it impossible for her and me to do in each others presence). For her memorial service, I conscripted a friend to help me get to the service and insure I would show up. We ended up getting lost on the way for over four hours! Unskillful, unmindful, unconscious, disorganized behavior clearly doing what it does to perpetuate suffering for myself and others. That’s one thing I would change about my brain if I could.

Dream a Little Dream of You: I’ve put together a new online offering. It’s about dreamwork and human development designed to help make more of our unconscious conscious. Click HERE to check it out: Dreaming with the Brain in Mind. We actually can begin to discover what some of the unconscious processes are that drive our lives and start to provide a bit of surprising, deliberate direction.

The spring morning when I caught my father unawares and sliced his penis off and chopped it into a dozen pieces with a meat cleaver changed our relationship forever. Which is to be expected, I guess. Sigmund Freud first hypothesized about the Oedipus Complex – the developmental work of little boys desirous of replacing dad so as to become the single object of mother’s desire. How it played out the first time in our house though, was not exactly what Freud envisioned.

One morning at around age four I spied my father naked, shaving in the bathroom. I walked in below his sight line and prefaced what was to come with the short announcement, “Daddy, watch how hard I can hit.” Since my fist and his nutsack were close to the same height, my father discovered that for a little guy, I could indeed hit very hard. A week later he left for parts unknown, not to be heard from again for 20 years.

Oedipus Kayoed



That’s not how the Oedipal Complex ideally gets resolved. It’s bad for body and brain for a four-year-old to suddenly become “Mommy’s Little Man.” It’s more responsibility and complexity than four-year-old neurobiology can manage. It’s also enormously confusing to be clearly favored over the females in the family with Electra Complexes running rampant (Jung’s female version of the Oedipal drama).

My four-year-old brain must have known Dad’s time as a father wasn’t long. It witnessed the arguments between him and my mother that ended with her being picked up bodily from her rocking chair and hurled violently across the room. It also noticed the disconnect between him and my older sister Andrea, my mother’s first daughter by a prior father. There were no tools or resources available then to be able to address these conflicts and bring them to any kind of integrative resolution. Repairing relationship ruptures held the same place on people’s Bucket Lists then as it does today: few of us have the internal resources or external support to turn towards long-buried pain of relationship rupture and lost love and begin to deeply explore and restore its damaged roots.

Some Tough Dots to Connect

These and other kinds of disturbing, disorganizing early experiences end up being the brain damage that we are invited to do healing work on during adulthood. During the late 90s Vince Felitti and Rob Anda working for the CDC discovered the high correlation between my father’s violence and his abandoning of the family and the fact that I currently struggle to maintain a healthy body weight and get sufficient exercise every week. You can watch an extended discussion by Vince talking about their research HERE.

It wasn’t until I reached my mid-thirties that I began to do the restoration work on my own brain in any kind of systematic, organized way, mostly without realizing that’s what I was taking on. I enrolled in an experimental graduate school program where we explored material like A Course in Miracles, The Enneagram, Cross-Cultural Intentional Communities, Dreamwork, Desert Vision Quests, Meditation, Holotropic Breathwork, and something called … The Hoffman Quadrinity Process (then known as “Fischer-Hoffman.”). The creators call it ” a course of personal discovery and development which allows you to examine your life and your behavior and empowers you to make lasting changes.” Like many things experimental at the time, Fisher-Hoffman had some woo-woo roots. It was founded in 1967 by a tailor in Oakland, California, Bob Hoffman as Fischer-Hoffman Psychic Therapy. Hoffman claimed to have had a vision of his late psychiatrist Siegfreid Fischer who appeared to him and told him the key to emotional healing is to undo “negative love”, unrealistic expectations and manipulations which parents saddle their children with.

Revisiting Mom and Dad

As I remember it, the process was done over 4 three-hour sessions – two spent investigating the dynamics of my relationship with mom, two then spent on dad. For my session with dad, since there was so little actual material for me to work with, the facilitator, Luc Brebion, encouraged me to be creative. And this is where my father’s penis met it’s fate.

I went over to my local meat market and purchased a two foot long Italian salami. To the final Hoffsalamiman session I brought it, along with a cutting board and a meat cleaver. Working solely on creative intuition, I went to work with abandon. I then passed around pieces of this symbolic penis as a form of ritual sacrament. From an integrative, healing, brain science perspective, this body movement while my few memories of dad were alive and firing action-potentials, seemed to have worked to change neural structures and connections in my brain. When I was done with the session, a kind of full-bodied peace washed over and flooded me.

What the Hoffman Quadrinity Process seems to have accomplished was transforming my father from the parent who abandoned me, making life for the family extremely limited and difficult, to the seriously wounded human being who did the absolute best he could, given the body and brain and the suffering and disorganization they had endured. Probably the best way to describe the internal emotional experience that resulted for me is: the embodied feeling of forgiveness.

Several weeks ago I spent a whole day looking for my favorite jacket. It’s a blue and green Gore-Tex all-weather hooded jacket made by Eddie Bauer. It’s my very favorite jacket. First I looked in the living room coat closet where I usually hang it. No dice. Then I looked in my bedroom closet and on the hooks in my office without success. I went back to the living room closet and started pulling coats off hangers thinking that something might have been hung on top of my jacket. No more dice.

Time Travel Search

At a complete loss, using a kind of Anthroposophical Ruckshau process, I elected to go mentally back through my week attempting to recall the last time I wore the jacket. While the rest of the country was suffering under sub-zero temperatures, here in Puget Sound the temps had been in the high forties / low fifties. Mostly all I had to put on to go outside was a fleece-lined hoodie. As I thought back through the week I remembered that on Wednesday I had lunch with my friend Craig at Pickles Deli. And since we often go for a walk before or after lunch, I remember deciding I should wear the jacket to be ready for Any Weather. That was the last time I recalled wearing it.

Bauer JacketAs I continued to cogitate on the week, I suddenly felt a shiver run up my back. Paying closer attention to it, I recalled feeling a similar shiver out in the parking lot as we left Pickles. Before my brain could fully consciously register it and make the connection to my forgotten jacket however, Craig called my attention to the fact that we were both walking towards a car that looked exactly like his, but which actually wasn’t. I made a comment in response and the shiver that ran up my back along with the message it was attempting to get me to pay attention to was over-ridden.

But feeling it now again, as I sat in reverie, I realized that what my body was attempting to do outside the deli was wake me up to the fact that it was cold out and that I’d forgotten my jacket inside. When I got up and called Pickles, I didn’t even have to describe the jacket: they told me it was in their back storeroom and I could come over and get it any time I wanted to. (Note: If I hadn’t been able to recall what I’d done with the jacket through waking reverie, I most certainly would have been able to using night Dream Incubation Query, a process I’ve used successfully dozens of times over the years. Professor Richard Wiseman outlines the process in his recent book, Night School: Waking Up to the Power of Sleep).

Body Eloquence

body eloquenceOur bodies are continually speaking in a language that is both universal and unique to each of us in any moment. And it’s actually a language that we can learn with the same degree of skill as we might learn French or Farsi. In her book, Body Eloquence, psychotherapist and therapeutic storyteller Nancy Mellon goes through each organ in the body and details some ways that say, the spleen, our inner harmonizer might speak to us, or the liver, our good-tempered well-being strategist, or the pancreas, that guardian of sweetness for the whole body. Remember what Poly-Vagal Theory teaches us: each of the organs in our body has great bundles of vagus nerve fibers constantly transmitting messages to our brain, mostly below conscious awareness. But as Freud so adamantly argued: much of our work as evolving human beings is to make the unconscious conscious.

Elementary to Start

I only wish that training in learning to pay attention to and understand the messages my body is constantly sending my way was something I had begun practicing in elementary school. The human body is so miraculously elegant and complex, if you really want to teach kids about spirituality and divinity, teach them about their own bodies. Teach them how to use the information readily available in any moment, alive and in a constant state of dynamic flux in their own bodies every day. Not only do I think it would impact general health and well-being – since any training in body listening would necessarily involve training in stress awareness and modulation – but I also think it would positively impact behavioral problems. If the body is telling you it needs to move, and you’ve received training in honoring and responding to the body’s needs, you’re going to move in positive, constructive ways.

And along the way, you won’t be able to avoid positively impacting the brain’s ability to grow new neurons and make new connections as well. And who knows, by the time you graduate elementary school and become a senior citizen, Senior Moments may simply be a thing of the past!

Dream a Little Dream of You: I’ve put together a new online offering. It’s about dreamwork and human development. Click HERE to check it out: Dreaming with the Heart in Mind. We actually can begin to know what the night holds in store.

Whew! Made it unscathed past another March 17th. Having considerable Irish heritage in my genetic history some would say has provided me with a gift for the blarney. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, blarney is a scientific term defined in the Encyclopedia of Science as: “Talk that is not true, but that is nice and somewhat funny, and that may be used to trick you. It also highly correlates with outlier intelligence and uncommon handsomeness.”

blarney-stone1But blarney’s actually a little more than that. In my experience it’s a fun, useful way to interact with other people that helps to regulate interpersonal anxiety. If it weren’t for other people, I would most likely never have to resort to blarney as a neuromodulator, and if I had to choose between blarney and benzodiazepines, well, blarney wins hands down.

BA’s R Us

As a confirmed BA (Bullshit Artist), I’m also providing another service to humankind, also intimately connected with my Irish heritage: I’m affording other people in the world ample and ongoing opportunity to take their personal Forgiveness Practices to new and unexplored heights. In addition, my personal blend of blarney is one that works to keep many people on their toes. You’ll often find me offering up all kinds of surprising statements – sometimes in this blog about neuroscience! For example, did you know that we can now download imagery from your waking or sleeping brain and project it onto your computer screen! (Which happens to be true – Changing the Brain’s File Formats). Mixed in to those surprising true statements, it’s not all that uncommon though for me to slip in a bit of blarney: did you know that your body and brain are really just one big, super-sized semi-conductor? (This also happens to be true if you stand under these 6 pillars: Energy Medicine). That’s the thing about blarney, you never know when it’s going to slip in through a side entrance. Usually, it will be when you least expect it, most often in fun, but not always.

Evil Genius

But there’s something else about blarney that we should place onto the positive side of the ledger as well: those of us well-practiced in this Emerald Art turn out to score really high on the creative side of the human ledger. You don’t believe me? Well, would you believe … Psychological Science? (Some qualitative, hard science researchers actually consider that to be an oxymoron). Here’s a link to the research: Dishonesty and Creativity – Intimate Bedfellows. It’s really great for BAs when we have some kind of science on our side!

Compliant StudentSome of what’s interesting about this last bit of research, in addition to the confirmation that indeed, sometimes cheaters DO prosper, is that almost 60% of the experimental subjects readily engaged in cheating. 60%! What’s up with that? What are these college kids, willing to participate in psychology experiments, learning in school? Don’t these schools have ethics and honor codes they enforce? If you participated in this experiment at all, you should be immediately sent to the Dean’s office afterward even if you didn’t cheat – just because. Because you’re part of a Cheater’s Culture. Your peers are cheating on your watch. And what about the researchers? What do they do about this high rate of dishonesty? Nothing. It’s fine. Just so long as you’re a “creative cheat.” Don’t we want kids to graduate college and be really creative in life and work?

Cheating My Way to the Bottom

Of course, there is one little problem with cheating, even in the service of great creativity. Here’s what it is: The Body Keeps the Score and the Brain Maintains a Record. Every time I violate a moral or ethical norm, my neurophysiology is right on it. It’s like there’s a Go-Pro audio, video and sensory camera that I carry around with me and it’s operating 24/7, day in and day out. And it profoundly shapes my interior landscape. Having tons of incidents stored away in unconscious, implicit memory (my neural evidence locker) that I’m a cheater and a liar, profoundly limits and circumscribes my life. Watch the neurophysiology of healthy little kids after they’ve been caught in a lie. You can feel your own body contract and distort in response to their embarrassment and shame. Do that time enough and soon the pain will drive you to some form of self-medication. The use of medication of any sort rarely does, but it could serve as an invitation to deeper self-scrutiny. At times when I have made the effort, I haven’t always liked what I’ve turned up. And that’s no blarney.

Some more non-blarney: I’ve put together a new online offering. It’s about dreamwork and trauma resolution. Click HERE to check it out: Dreaming with the Brain in Mind. Your conscious brain may or may not like it.

Several weekends ago, a friend and I presented a learning seminar at Bastyr University for practicing and aspiring healing professionals entitled: The Art and Practice of Narrative Medicine. We began the weekend by driving home two points repeatedly. The first was an extended discussion on the importance of safety in seminars such as ours. We identified the importance of collective vigilance throughout, since often environments that start out with high levels of safety, over the course of time (think: any of the famous social psychology experiments on obedience to authority), can frequently morph into being something else entirely (for a detailed look at the safety items we presented, check out this link: How to Know When Safety is At Risk). The second point we spent significant time addressing was the need for co-creating an environment where it was safe, important, expected and welcomed to ask Grand Questions. What’s a Grand Question? I have a definition: anything you feel the slightest urge to ask, especially if you’re feeling any bit apprehensive about giving voice to it.

Make One Change

owl-questionAs a way to stress the importance of asking questions, we read this passage from Dan Rothstein’s and Luz Santana’s book, Make One Change: Teach Students To Ask Their Own Questions:

This book makes two simple arguments: 1) All students should learn how to formulate their own questions. 2) All teachers can easily teach this skill as part of their regular practice. This inspiration for the first argument came from an unusual source. Parents in the low-income community of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with whom we were working twenty years ago. They told us that they did not participate in their children’s education nor go to their children’s schools because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” It turns out that they were actually pointing to a glaring omission in most formal and informal education. The skill of being able to generate a wide range of questions and strategize about how to use them effectively is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught. In fact, it has too often been limited to students who have access to an elite education. Our goal is to democratize this teaching of an essential thinking and learning skill that is also an essential democratic skill.

So, that’s one piece – we should ask Grand Questions so as not to become compliant citizens, buying in to all kinds of BS simply because someone in authority declares it to be so. That’s one small step in unlearning the helplessness that is often an unintended learned consequence of early education.

Surprise Test

So, it was most gratifying when later, after I read this quote – attributing it to the Talmud – “We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are” – and immediately a hand went up. “I know that quote. Is it really from The Talmud? I always thought it was by Anais Nin.” Well, that was the first I’d ever heard that attribution. I preferred that it be from The Talmud; it seemed so historically wiser, somehow. Nevertheless, the truth was, I didn’t really know. And I said so. Even though I initially felt embarrassed for not immediately knowing the answer – or that I might have actually mis-attributed it to the Talmud – I promised to find out. At the break we went looking and discovered both Anais and The Talmud are often referred to as the original source. Finally though, we discerned that Anais did use it, but without attribution, thus many readers understandably attribute it to her. Question answered.

Please Ask Questions – Not

A preponderance of the courses I’ve taken in public and private school didn’t really want me to ask Grand Questions, or any questions for that matter. No teacher ever directly came out and explicitly stated that, of course; usually they stated just the opposite. But by the process of neuroception, it becomes clear to students that there are lots of reasons why asking questions is not a very good learning strategy in many so-called learning environments. And I have been guilty of this as much as anyone.

Subconscious ThreatNeuroception, you may recall, is “threat detection without awareness.” It usually operates below conscious sensory experience and often is delivered through subtle feelings in the body. So, for example, in our Narrative Medicine class, when the attendee posed the Anais Nin question, first I thanked them. I did that because I know they’re very likely taking a risk. Next, I ever-so-slowly moved toward them as I did my best to respond (which can be difficult when you don’t know the answer). When I ask my own questions of teachers and they move away from me, I don’t end up feeling all warm, fuzzy and welcome inside. Finally, I told the truth – which in this case was I didn’t really know – while simultaneously addressing my stress by mindfully switching to awareness of my breath. Much of skillful teaching, for me at least, involves a lot of time spent consciously modulating arousal to insure that it doesn’t spike into hyper-arousal.

Ultimately, apart from whatever information anyone is seeking, how I respond to the questions people ask plays a profound role in whether or not they will continue to keep risking asking them.

So, there’s this substance in the brain that works on neurons very much like Scotts Miracle-Gro, the water soluble nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium plant additive that has been around for decades. Just like plant Miracle-Gro does, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) essentially turns impoverished neurons in the brain into enriched super-neurons with massive amounts of dendritic and axonal branches and roots capable of making a significantly increased number of connections in your brain and my brain. Those two different neuron possibilities, hand-drawn by the father of neuroscience himself (Santiago Ramon y Cajal), look like this: impoverished-enriched-neurons

The more brain neurons we have and the more branches they have, the more connections they can make. The more connections our brain cells can make, the more energy and information they can process. The more energy and information our brain cells can process, the more energy and information we are able to engage the people, places and things in our life with. And just as with plants, enriched tends to be much healthier than impoverished.

But BDNF not only nourishes “root” growth and connectivity (synaptogenesis), it also plays a critical role in my brain and your brain growing new brain cells (neurogenesis). Quite predictably, BDNF plays an important role the Homer1A protein’s role in forming and retaining long-term memories, in other words, in learning.

Myokine, My Sweet Myokine!

But here’s a cool added benefit of BDNF – it works as a myokine! Great, you say. What’s a myokine? Well, the root “myo” refers to me. But more specifically, my muscles. So, a myocardial infarction turns out to be muscle cells in my heart dying from oxygen deprivation (Necrosis – a stinky way for cells to die, literally. Apoptosis is the anti-inflammatory preferred programmed cell death of choice). Myokines, on the other hand, are kind to the muscle cells in my heart (and everywhere else). They are small proteins that promote regeneration and repair. That would be BDNF!

Oh, and one more benefit from BDNF: it counteracts depression. The folks over at Neurotic Physiology are good enough to explain how that happens:

I’m sure you all knew that the hippocampus is associated with learning and memory, but it is ALSO associated with depression. Or, more specifically, with antidepressants. We used to think that antidepressants worked because they increased the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. …Traditional antidepressants like Prozac produce peak serotonin levels in the brain within about 6-8 hours. But the antidepressant effects take longer. WAY longer, up to several weeks. So if the increases in serotonin themselves weren’t causing the antidepressant effects, what was?

Well, it turns out that, if you treat an animal with a drug like Prozac for a few weeks, long enough to get a clinical effect in humans, you also get neurogenesis in the hippocampus, along with increases in BDNF. So the idea is that, somehow, antidepressants increase BDNF, which helps to increase neurogenesis, and this produces antidepressant effects.

There are other studies to support this. For example, (acute or chronic) stress and increases in the stress hormone corticosterone will cause decreases in BDNF, and decreases in neurogenesis, and stress itself is associated with the development of major depressive disorder. Not only that, but people with depression actually show lower levels of BDNF in their blood than people without.

Movin’ On Up

So, how can we increase our brain’s and body’s production of Human Miracle-Gro? Well first, here’s one way – regular exercise. Yep. That old bugaboo you’ve not only heard over and over again here in this blog, but all over the internet from the likes of Daniel Wolpert, Mike Evans and even old-timers like Jack LaLanne. But how do we actually know that exercise is good for producing BDNF? Why from studying mice, of course. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Right Listening Front CoverThis supporting evidence concludes that exercise selectively increases neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.

The mechanism for this is due to BDNF activating the signal transduction cascades, MAP kinase and CAMKII, which regulate the expression of the transcription factor, CREB, and protein synapsin I. The mitochondria and the uncoupling protein, UCP2, which is mainly present in the brain’s mitochondria, have been thought to interact with this signal transduction cascade during physical activity. CREB and synapsin I both play a role in enhancing plasticity by changing the structure of the neuron and strengthening its signaling capability, therefore affecting long term potentiation. CREB specifically aids in spatial learning and regulating gene expression, while synapsin I modulates the release of neurotransmitters and affects the actin cytoskeleton of the cell which enhances the signaling capability of the neuron by changing its shape and density.

Aren’t you glad that I don’t write like this?

Stockpiling the Gro-Hormone

So, how else might we increase our supply of Human Miracle-Gro? Some people (and I happen to be one of them) think that how BDNF increases energy and information processing in the brain and regenerates and repairs muscle cells in my body frequently shows up through an energetic experience that human beings have given a descriptive name to. We call it “love.”

Now, I could write pages and pages about this energy and my direct and indirect experience of it. Instead though, I’m going to offer up a BDNF-increasing quote that I’ve prefaced my Right Listening book with. It’s from pastoral counseling professor David Augsburger who observed: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.” What David doesn’t offer guidance on is how to skillfully love someone when you have a situation-specific, impoverished neural network, and they say something that makes reactive, vindictive Retaliation Energy rush through your nervous system.

Which is one reason that Right Listening is … a practice.

When I suddenly found myself with both time and money enough to be able to relax and indulge a lifelong fantasy – to write The GAN (Great American Novel) – I enrolled in a writing workshop at the Green Gulch Zen Center offered by Natalie Goldberg. She’d just hit it big with her book on a Zen approach to writing called Writing Down the Bones, and I thought it would be a good idea to get some of her juju in person (recall The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience?).

9781451641240_p0_v2_s260x420Writing Wisdom One

I took two things away from that week with Natalie: 1. It’s important to give myself permission to write the worst crap in the world. This, I have come to find out in my subsequent studies of the brain is a really important directive for writers. Without that genuine, authoritative permission to write crap, the Bully Language Brain will constantly be delivering the message both loudly and softly that my work sucks, in an unrelenting stream of sneaky, dispiriting invective. If I have permission to write crap, then my Bully Language Brain really has little lethal ammunition to fire at me. “Your writing’s crap.” “Yeah. I know. And? Your point?” Inevitably though, interwoven through the crap I will find shiny golden nuggets to extract and polish (through cognitive-circuitry editing) for possible joyous weaving into a larger, integrated whole.

Writing Wisdom Two

The second nugget I took away from my Zen week with Natalie is the Enantiodromic Directive (look it up) of “writing about what disturbs me.” The things that disturb me, move me emotionally. When I’m emotionally upset, most often what I’m activating are neural tendrils connected to traumatic memories buried in the unconscious root cellars of my brain. By allowing the “still small voice” of these tiny disturbances to kindle other neurons in the neighborhood, soon I will find myself fanning the flames of a full-blown emotional conflagration. Such conflagrations, polished and edited in accord with the learnable skills of dramatic structure, are what hold great promise for memorable, engaging writing. Simultaneously, they also hold great potential to make me sick and crazy.

My first effort following that week with Natalie – The Icing of the Shooter – took two years to complete and ended up winning me The Jack London Award for new fiction that year. It also took five therapist friends to rally around me for support during the writing. The emotional drain involved with that effort brought me to the full realization that my Great American Novel needs were not at all well-matched with the narrow limits of my emotional bandwidth (nor were they well-matched with me becoming a competent clinical psychologist, I later discovered). An observation attributed alternately to the great sportswriter, Red Smith and to Ernest Hemingway is that great writing is easy, “All you need do is sit down at your typewriter (computer) and open a vein.” This was clearly true in my experience, and … not something I had the emotional constitution nor the requisite strength of heart to be unwaveringly true to.

Healing Failing to Happen

Digging up buried traumatic memories of loss and betrayal and not bringing them to healing, embodied resolution is a dicey proposition. Several years after he published the novel, Sophie’s Choice, the writer William Styron found himself in a suicidal depression which he was unable to shake off. He finally sought psychiatric help, receiving mostly medications for his trust. Here’s an excerpt from the “memoir of madness” he later published detailing the experience as Darkness Visible:

William Styron

William Styron

One psychological element (concerning depression) has been established beyond reasonable doubt … loss in all its manifestations is the touchstone of depression – in the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin. At a later date I would gradually be persuaded that devastating loss in childhood figured as a probable genesis of my own disorder; meanwhile, as I monitored my retrograde condition, I felt loss at every hand. The loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom, and my own sense of self had all but disappeared, along with any self-reliance. This loss can quickly degenerate into dependence, and from dependence into infantile dread. One dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear. There is an acute fear of abandonment. Being alone in the house, even for a moment, caused me exquisite panic and trepidation.

Trauma is Embodied

Here’s my take on Styron’s account: healing was trying to happen over and over again, reenacted through his creative writing; and over and over again, it failed to come to full healing fruition. His novels, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner (recounted by a slave in jail just before he’s about to be executed), Set This House on Fire and The Clap Shack (about life on a VD ward) all present attempts at healing redemption that failed to redeem Styron. The main reason for that repeated failure, in my estimation: only his head and not his body was engaged in the creative, healing integration process.

Loss and trauma are almost always embodied experiences. My own adventures in creative writing (in addition to 25+ years as a volunteer grief counselor) have convinced me that loss and trauma need to be physically worked out of the body. If I were Styron writing his novels, I would have padded a room in my house with a heavy punching bag suspended from the ceiling. I would have painted the faces of my novel’s antagonists on that bag as each appeared in the story (and presumably in neurons propagating action potentials in my brain). As each appeared, I would have proceeded to beat the crap out of that bag/image with every means at my disposal. My suspicion is that each novel would have seen me go through several heavy Everlast bags – a small cost for doing the business of writing-healing. I would have eventually emerged, through “triumphant action” – as the happy hero of my own life story. Fuck depression.


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