I love hanging out with deathworkers, people comfortable in the presence of human beings transitioning from embodied presence. At one point I thought it would be a great idea to have ONLY deathworkers in the circle of people I care for. My reasoning: when the time came and I needed someone to take care of me, I could distribute the careload over a large number of skilled, knowledge- able people; people who have done their own grief work, who have worked to heal their own betrayed and broken hearts; people who have developed an easy capacity for compassion and deep listening. That’s me and my brain trying to innovatively care for both myself and simultaneously the people in my circle near and dear.
Embracing Our Trajectory
I have since let that controlling notion go the way of many of my bright ideas … allowing it to flutter sweetly off into the noosphere. But since I’ve begun studying social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology, I’ve found validation and confirmation in the fact that hanging out mostly with deathworkers wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Turns out that when we examine some of what social and developmental neuroscience has to say about the trajectory of the human neuro-journey there’s something to it. As we increase our capacities for processing more and more energy and information by increasing neuron numbers and connectivity in certain areas of our brain (and heart?), a deepening comfort in the presence of death, and with the prospect of our own inevitable end, turns out to be pretty high up there on the developmental scale. As the American spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass once observed: Death is not an outrage. It’s part of the profound intelligence that is also responsible for originally creating human beings from the fusion of two single cells – Good at the Beginning. Simply because we fear it doesn’t mean death isn’t part of that same intelligent design intended to be … Good at the End (Imagine if a fetus could think and speak. Imagine what they might have to say about the terror of their impending birth!).
Getting Over Ourselves
Along with an ease and comfort with death, those increased neuron numbers and connections seem to often do something else as well: they provide us with sufficient processing power required to forget about ourselves, to let go of a lifetime of self-concern, or in some cases, self-obsession. It’s sort of like, developmentally ego dies before the body does. And often all that remains that has big juice and meaning is a desire to be of service to others.
Ego, for the most part, is simply a personally curated lifetime of thought-weavings. All the things we’ve ever been told or have thought about ourselves, the world and others, stranded together into one continuous fabric, seemingly constant through time. It’s what we wake up in the morning remembering as “me.” It’s also what most of us spend a lifetime maintaining under the “shroud of separation,” the illusion that I am a separate being and have no connection to you, and that what affects you may or may not impact me. That is something that our interconnected world is showing more and more to be absolutely not true.
The Power of a Loving Network
Writing in The Healthy Aging Brain, Pepperdine professor, Louis Cozolino observes:
“… I believe that a core component of ongoing health and longevity lies in the power of sustained intimacy, attachment, and learning. It is the power of being with others that builds, shapes, and sustains our brains. The best overall environment for a healthy aging brain is one that optimizes challenge and maximizes attachments. Therefore, how we think about aging, maintain our relationships and stay connected to others are vital aspects of our continued health and longevity.” (pg. 33-34)
What Louis and interpersonal neurobiology are telling us is that human beings and their brains need other people, and their brains. We cannot thrive in isolation. And we need to study the brain in the context of the living laboratory of human and humane community (What kind and what size community, I will take up next week).
Interestingly, as we are moved more and more to connect with other people, we would then be modeling an important aspect of Einstein’s brain develop- ment. One thing that made his brain so unique was wider and differently configured parietal lobes. A robust developmental trajectory would design and enact programs and practices supporting JUST such growth … in person. Person to person. Which, in part, is how Einstein managed it – in collaboration with two lifelong friends at what they playfully called their “Olympia Academy.”
We can each aspire and inspire … together.