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I have a number of formerly good friends who no longer speak to me. These are people I sincerely like, people whom I feel genuinely tender and caring towards, people I’d love to pick up and continue the friendship with. Only they refuse to speak to me. They don’t call; they don’t write. They don’t return calls and they don’t return emails. Usually, the breech comes about as a result of something I’ve said or done; the resulting Spontaneous Relationship Abortion often catches me completely off guard.

I don’t really blame these former friends for cutting off contact. It’s not like I’ve never stopped responding to someone’s desire for continued contact with me. Much like a spontaneous pregnancy abortion though, I feel great sadness when it happens; and I’ve given a lot of thought as to why it happens.

Turning Ghosts into Ancestors

GhostOne notion I’ve come up with is that many of these relationship abortions are failed attempts to turn ghosts into ancestors. This is a phrase that Buddhist psychiatrist, Mark Epstein attributes to the great developmental theorist D. W. Winnicott. He’s essentially suggesting that the people from our past by whose actions we’ve suffered trauma (most often our parents, but not always), live in us as ghosts (whether we realize it or not). They remain in that unsteady state until the memories of whatever violations they perpetrated have been fully surfaced and integrated. Friendships (not to mention: marriages and committed partnerships) too often unconsciously serve the surfacing function. But we have few means and methods in our culture that allow us to feed and skillfully work with these hungry ghosts and turn them back into friends, or at least ancestors who no longer reactively hijack our nervous system with what they say and do.

Life is Like a Box of Dukkha

In Buddhism the First Noble Truth speaks of Dukkha, the changing nature of reality. Our inability to warmly embrace shifting reality underlies much suffering in the world. A somewhat different translation of that term dukkha holds special meaning for me: “difficult to face.” Those things that are difficult to face – causing us to turn away from them – often lie at the root of great suffering. Our own and the rest of the world’s.

People who upset us – me, in the case of friends who’ve broken off contact; or ghosts who haven’t become ancestors – fall into that category. We are difficult to face. We make you feel uncomfortable and trigger the desire to turn away. What to do? (One thing NOT to do is try to resolve emotional issues through email. It’s almost guaranteed to make things worse. Email is not robust enough to convey the bulk of emotional expression that social neuroscience knows gets expressed through body language, voice tone and facial expression – not to mention, the intention of the heart).

seekingyouWhen I look closely at whether or not repairing ruptured relationships matters, everything I know about brain science and good health, suggests to me that it does. Ruptures in blood vessels, body organs, neural network connections are all adverse experiences with significant downside. Turning away from and ignoring a ruptured spleen or appendix has clear-cut negative consequences. I suspect doing the same with “whole organ-systems” showing up in our lives initially as human friends, has similar consequences, although perhaps not so readily apparent. At a minimum turning away serves to perpetuate the illusion of separation.

Practice Makes Possible

One possibility is to learn practices that can work to help us skillfully manage emotionally hijacked states. We know these states arise primarily from the body releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones were originally designed to save our lives in a time when wildness lived all around us. When friends trigger that nervous system response, the brain immediately associates those friends with the discomfort we feel, even though the seeds of that discomfort may have been planted long ago. Those are the seeds of self-protection and give rise to the need to safeguard my vulnerability: experience has taught me that many people who abort relationships mistake vulnerability for weakness and often unconsciously go on the attack in its presence. Until those “friends'” brain networks mature in their wisdom and impulse control circuitry, I’m happy to be spared their friendship.

Essentially then, my work seems to be to spend time intimately learning when and how my body generates stress hormones, and then develop me-specific ways of managing them. Part of this learning involves observing how my body reacts to surfacing threat-memories, and how it responds to attack when I feel vulnerable. As I do, it’s possible to practice remembering, “It’s not me; it’s my brain (and my body).” And since so much of the brain’s resources are designed and dedicated to physical body movement, a long walk or a short run can usually re-balance my system.

But each of us is unique in the way we react to and recover from stress-inducing apparitions from our past. Recovery time can also depend on the nature and duration of the stress, along with other things in my life that might be hassling me. If my stress levels are already high, it won’t take much to make me “jump the hump” and displace my anger or frustration onto the nearest warm body. Not usually great for sustaining friendships, or intimate primary relationships, for that matter. Unless, of course, my friends recognize, “It’s not Mark; it’s his brain” and have sufficient desire, awareness, wisdom and resolve to re-establish the attuned heart connection.

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For decades I’ve known about the supposed benefits of Gratitude Practice. Quite honestly it never really resonated with me. I can make up a lot of stories about why that might be – there’s seemingly few opportunities to feel grateful when you’re raised in poverty in a dangerous inner city housing project – poverty is a neurotoxin – too much threat-detection circuitry dominating my neural real estate. That’s a good story. I’ve got any number of others.

According to noted USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, however, an effective gratitude practice strengthens the neural circuitry in two key areas of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Coincidentally, these are the same areas that show up with robust circuitry in long term meditators! Also, this is the same wiring associated with the so-called Pro-Social circuitry in the brain – the areas of the brain that move us towards people, places and things, as opposed to the brain’s threat-detecting, defensive circuitry which moves us self-protectively away.

The Untold Retold Story

Turns out my avid study of neuroscience is beginning to generate a new story when it comes to gratitude and practicing it. That new story, interestingly, begins with a wild story about … stories! The Stanford Medical School neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman recently pointed out this research in his own podcast on gratitude.

If I ask you to listen to a recording of any of these short accounts – say, the 4th/last story – of people helping people, while you’re doing so your heart will beat at a variable rate. All hearts beat at different rates at different times. That rate changes depending on what you’re doing. Slower beat-rates when you’re resting or relaxed; faster rates when you’re active, stressed or in danger. Your heart rate varies (HRV) based on the needs of your body and your respiratory patterns.

With respect to Story #4 above, if, on different days, at different times and in different places, I ask any number of your friends to listen to the same account, their hearts will beat at a variable rate just like yours. No big surprise.

 

What IS surprising, however is that if I make a trace recording like the one above of HRV for each participant listening to Story #4, those variability tracings will PERFECTLY overlay onto each other! Everyone’s HRV is affected in similar ways, by the same plot points in the same story. But more importantly: my brain is impacted the same beneficial way if I read or listen to the same story over and over! Thus the essence of an effective Gratitude Practice must be grounded in narrative – a story that emotionally activates our “gratitude circuitry.”

And so, here is the critical variable of an effective Gratitude Practice: select an authentic experience of you or someone else receiving kindness or of you or someone else being kind to someone and you feeling grateful in the aftermath. What matters most is that it genuinely activates the emotional experience of feeling grateful in your body and brain, and you have access to a written or auditory file of the story. Listen to or read this story for two or three minutes three times a week and you will end up increasing the strength and connectivity of your resting state heart/brain circuitry and lessen the strength of your so-called “resentment circuitry.” And remember this neurobiological guideline: whatever we pay attention to tends to increase – a story to truly be grateful for.

Prosocial versus Self-Protective

Finally, since learning about the unrivaled power of the granular elements of Contingent Communication (CC) to foster secure attachment relationships (as opposed to insecure or fragmented and disorganized), my relationships have noticeably changed. Because CC has this power to grow robust neural networks in the developing brain of children (as well as the delayed developing brain in many adults!) – especially the aspect of learning to “respond in a timely and effective manner” – my own Gratitude Practice has begun paying attention to stories of this happening more and more in my daily life (also, paying attention to when it doesn’t happen – like when people don’t call or simply don’t show up for a meeting or I get “ghosted” on Social Media). I’m repeatedly attending to many more of the former and doing my best to simply notice, and then let go of the latter. This element of my Gratitude Practice feels like it’s working well for me.

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The Neurobiology of Normal

Click HERE to view an Enchanted Loom review of Gabor and Daniel Mate’s book,

The Myth of Normal.

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No matter what approach any of us takes in service to self-improvement, all of it must involve a change to the brain, and inevitably, the body. That change essentially involves either learning and practicing new thoughts, speech and behaviors and/or unlearning and abandoning old thinking, speech and behaviors. And for that to happen, new cells and new wiring connections need to appear in the brain, or old cells and old wiring connections need to disappear. Or both. My favorite video depicting the former part of this process can be found HERE.

What you’re essentially viewing in the above one-minute video is a fundamental life process that humans have given a name to. We call it … learning. Learning comes in all varieties and unfolds continuously across the lifespan. Whether it’s discovering and remembering the new name of a body part – the Pollex*, for example – or deciding to become a neurobiology autodidact in one’s 60s – it all involves learning. And the brain has great reserves of Silent Synapses to accommodate lifelong learning. To make maximum use of the knowledge we acquire, it’s often skillful to learn to practice and apply that learning in the real world. Ideally for the benefit of ourselves and others. If we apply our learning to the detriment of others, we ignorantly operate in opposition to how healthy human beings were designed and are arguably evolving.

Spiritual Pre-Puberty

Shortly before I went through puberty, I first learned about this thing called … sex. I was 11 years old and one of my friends, Peter Talarczyk, told me about things he saw his mother and stepfather doing in their bedroom. We also explored the topic together in the World Book Encyclopedia. What I mostly remember at the time is being incredulous that such a thing happened between people. While I had an intellectual understanding of what was involved, I lacked the neural circuitry and the developed physiology to actually have a direct experience of sex. I believe something similar is the case with authentic spirituality. Until we grow the neurophysiology – sufficient cells and connectivity – that will permit a direct experience of “spirit”, our understanding can only live at the “World Book Encyclopedia” stage. Until then, what many of us are only afforded is what controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche called, Glimpse After Glimpse.

On the Road to Find Out

So, what is the nature of this growth and learning that can take us beyond the World Book Encyclopedia stage of learning involving spirituality and what might be the best way to go about it? Jill Bolte Taylor, the famed TED-talking Harvard neuroanatomist, in her recently published book, Whole Brain Living, believes that learning needs to somehow increase the cells and connectivity across the whole network. The disparate parts must become more whole, more integrated. In that regard, she has this to say: “Perhaps gaining insight into Whole Brain Living (integrating networks) is humanity’s collective Hero’s Journey and how we will evolve as a species to live our lives with purpose. (pg.132)

If neurobiological integration – Whole Brain Living – is one of the purposes of learning, what might the integration … be for? Brainscans from recent research into entheogens (“God Drugs” like ayahuasca, psilosybin and LSD) would seem to offer us a possibility – increased connectivity allowing greater ease in processing of energy and information with respect to Pro-social activities – as opposed to antisocial – in our lives.

Whol-ing Wants to Happen

Jill’s not the only one who makes this assertion. In her book, Being a Brain-wise Therapist, neuropsychologist Bonnie Badenoch offers THESE nine ways that a fragmented neural network might become more integrated. Of the nine, currently I find myself most actively working with the last: Temporal Integration – the fact that I very likely have more days of life behind me than I have ahead of me. How might I best serve myself and others in that remaining time?

Authentic spiritual teachers through the ages have been suggesting paths any of us might take. Buddhism is one that has long resonated most strongly for me. Or more accurately, Buddha’s own personal path is what has resonated most for me. For much of Buddha’s early life he was an itinerant seeker, trying on various spiritual approaches to see which ones he felt most harmoniously with in his own brain and body. Ultimately, he ended up becoming what Friedrich Nietzsche called “that profoundest physiologist.” I think if he were just starting out in 2022, Buddha would very likely be known as “that profoundest neurobiologist.”

Outlier, Outlier, Brain on Fire

In the new book Gabor Maté wrote with his son Daniel, The Myth of Normal, one central theme they provide compelling evidence for, is that most all of the citizens in the developed world are walking around with fragmented brains and bodies and few have little idea what it might be like to be fully integrated. In fact, we’re nescient (meta-ignorant) in the sense that we don’t even know that something so critical is absent in our lives. But even if we did, what might we do about it? Probably what spiritual seekers have done through the millennia – mount sufficient inner and outer resources to put us on our own personal paths, to be on our own Way to Find Out – in other words, work on ourselves, on doing our best to grow and integrate our own bio- and neurobiology.

*Pollex is the anatomical name for that appendage pointing down in the picture at the top of this post.

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Cultivating a Tender Brain

Virtually anything we wish to accomplish – be it musical skills, speaking proficiency, or healthy, strong minds and bodies – requires deliberate, regular practice. We need to actually grow the cells and wiring that allow such skilfullness to manifest. Often, we also need demonstration and instruction in what needs to be practiced. This edition of The Enchanted Loom reviews an exceptionally useful “instruction manual” for cultivating a Tender Brain. Click HERE (and open to Full Screen) for the review of Dzigar Kongtrul’s inspiring little guidebook, Training in Tenderness.

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Developing Wisdom Brain

There’s rarely a day that goes by in any week that someone doesn’t ask me how I’m doing. Typically, I respond by telling them my simple truth: “I’m walking the fine line between wisdom and ignorance. Mostly on the ignorance side of the path.” And what evidence do I have? Well, more than you might suspect. And unfortunately I’m rarely alone in walking on the ignorance side. I have a LOT of company.

But first, we should probably all get on the same page with a mutual understanding of just what I mean when I speak about wisdom and ignorance. Wisdom is basically what I’m left with when I stop operating ignorantly in my life. And by ignorance I simply mean: constricted view or limited understanding. About anything and everything.

Buddhist Dharma teacher, Christina Feldman has this to say about ignorance: “Ig­norance is sometimes taking that which is not beautiful to be beautiful, as a cause of attachment. Sometimes it is defined as believing in an idea of self to be an enduring and solid entity in our lives when there is no such thing to be found. Or as not seeing things as they actually are, but seeing life, see­ing ourselves, seeing other people through a veil of beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, projections, clinging, attach­ments, et cetera, et cetera. Ignorance flavors what kind of speech, thoughts, or actions we (regularly) engage in.”

Grace

My friend and colleague, Dr. Kathleen Singh is the author of “The Grace-y Trilogy” (The Grace in Living, The Grace in Aging & The Grace in Dying). Shortly before she herself died, Kathleen wrote and published Unbinding, which I consider to be her Masterwork. In it she essentially translates the 12 Buddhist constructs of Dependent Origination into plain, everyday language. You’ll notice in the illustration below that exploring Ignorance heads the list. In Unbinding Kathleen makes the elegant argument that we come to Wisdom by recognizing Ignorance operating in our lives. And one authentic way to begin to recognize Ignorance is by noticing what’s missing. Ignorance is very likely operating if Delight is missing. Ignorance is likely operating if a Sense of Wonder is missing. Ignorance is likely operating if Lightness of Being is missing.

If these experiences and others that Kathleen identifies are regularly missing in our lives, the question becomes … why? My suspicion, based upon personal experience and extensive reading and study in neurobiology and the trauma literature, is these experiences aren’t showing up regularly as a result of impoverished or fragmented neural networks in our brain. And, most often those networks got that way as a consequence of unprocessed and integrated adult traumatic experiences, or early Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – early emotionally overwhelming experiences that our nervous system wasn’t sufficiently developed to be able to fully process, metabolize and integrate without help from The Golden Rule of Neuroscience.

The Way Out: In

So, if Ignorance is predominating in our lives, what do we do? Early on in the writing of this blog I listed a number of therapeutic modalities that my own experience and the clinical literature suggests are effective in helping to access and integrate memories of early traumatic experiences. They are mostly psycho-physiological approaches and you can find the list HERE.

My own answer for myself has been and continues to be: grow new brain cells and network connections by developing a Wisdom Practice. Mine consists of ongoing, regular, study, practice and learning and teaching in … The Neurobiology of Wisdom! In addition: learning and practicing paying attention to thoughts and feelings that attempt to elevate my stress hormones unnecessarily – like worrying about money or future health or home or car maintenance – things to worry about are seemingly endless. Since I know that internally, “state drives story” – the level of stress hormones in my body and brain at any moment tends to drive the narrative that emerges in my thought generation. Knowing this, I work daily and diligently to keep my adrenal glands from “making me their bitch” – whenever possible, doing my best to course-correct to the Wisdom side of the street.

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When I first suspected my path for continued growth and learning was inviting me to become a public speaker, I thought teaching would offer what my brain, mind and body seemed to need most. The only problem was that every time I stood at the front of a classroom, my threat-detection networks activated a flood of self-protection hormones that made the experience truly miserable. A good friend offered to help me explore what was actually so terrifying. Turned out I was mostly mortified imagining being two hours into a three-hour class and having nothing more to say. Together we came up with a simple strategy: I broke the three hours down into 18 ten-minute segments and outlined content and exercises for each of them; then I added 6 more ten-minute segments for good measure.

I now had four hours of outlined material for every three-hour class. I could relax, knowing that I was more than prepared. That reasoned solution as a strategy to manage my stress actually has a scientific name. It’s called: diachronic regulation. Diachronic regulation simply means making a rational effort to change our environment in ways that makes gritting unnecessary. Think Odysseus being tied to his ship mast so as not to be seduced by the Sirens, or the kids in the Marshmallow Test getting up from the table and taking themselves over to a toybox, far away from the marshmallows.

Instead of developing the teaching strategy I did, I could have just toughed it out. I could have gritted my teeth and showed up for each class with my adrenaline and cortisol levels off the chart and hoped that over time, through simple repetition and exposure, their levels would eventually reduce. There’s a scientific name for that strategy as well: synchronic regulation – the use of pure willpower to manage stressful environments. Between the two, diachronic gets my vote.

The Fundamental Fragmenter

Diachronic Regulation, which is closely connected to self-binding in addiction circles, is also probably much better for my health. Coming up with effective stress-management strategies while my brain and body aren’t actually flooded with stress hormones, generally produces much more creative, effective and workable results – grace, if you will. If I’m looking for a way to produce sub-optimal outcomes, putting myself in a hyper-stressed state is a great way to do it. Fragment my network connections – disrupt the easy flow of energy and information – and my creativity, not to mention my health, will suffer as a by-product.

I’ve written here, here and here about how chronically and acutely elevated stress levels underlie much of what ails the human race. From auto accidents to nightmares to loneliness, our brain’s and body’s attempts to protect us are all in reaction to elevated levels of stress hormones inside us. Polyvagal people make a pointed observation with respect to living on earth with its other air-breathing inhabitants: We can either connect or self-protect. While we are organically live-wired to connect, high stress will almost always move us in the direction of self-protection.

Over the years, researchers have discovered and described many methods to skillfully manage stress (which I believe, at bottom, a great many spiritual directives are also designed to do; whether we admit it or not, there’s a great deal of stress involved in stealing money or coveting your neighbor’s life partner). A great many of those methods involve … diachronic regulation – intentionally change our inner and/or outer environment so as to easily metabolize stress hormones.

We each need to find stress-reduction strategies that work for our particular nervous system in particular places at particular times. Three of my own favorites that tend to work for me most of the time are: 1. going for intentional, stress hormone-metabolizing walks, which usually has me on local forest trails. I’ll often vary my pace and closely attend to the natural world around me; 2. Mentally recited a calming phrase or soothing words. Two of my regular go-to’s are: “In THIS moment, everything’s all right” and “This too shall pass”; and 3. Asymmetric breathing: three-beat inhales to five-beat exhales (or 5/7 or 7/11 – whatever works. Longer exhales than inhales slows the heartrate; a slower heart rate signals safety to the brain’s threat-detection networks.

I’d love to know what often works to lower stress levels for any of you who care to share.

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Is it possible to know things without knowing HOW you know them?

Last November my wife and I moved everything out of our cabinets and cupboards and crammed it all into our dining room in order to remodel the kitchen. Well, after nine months the remodel has finally been completed and last week we began to migrate much of the kitchen paraphernalia back to where it came from. Among the pots and pans and dishes I came upon a big blue plastic measuring cup filled with dog grooming tools: thinning shears, coat combs and brushes, nail clippers, etc. Because I couldn’t think of the perfect place for it in the new kitchen, I put the collection aside and moved out the things we previously did have specific locations for.

A week or so later, my wife came to me frustrated and perplexed: “Phanny’s coat is all tangled and ragged and I wanted to comb it out, but I can’t find the grooming tools.” Rather than shrug and pretend I didn’t know anything about them, I admitted that I had seen them in the dining room, but didn’t recall where I’d put them. Together then, we searched every inch of the house and the garage. No luck.

“Let’s take a break,” I suggested. “Tonight I’ll incubate a dream about the tools and see if my unconscious can provide a clue.”

Targeted Dream Incubation is an established nighttime protocol that you can review HERE from the MIT Media Lab. I learned it decades ago from Arthur Hastings, my doctoral dissertation chair, and have practiced it with great success at least a couple of dozen times since.

That night I carefully went through the procedural steps, but awoke in the morning not remembering a single dream. Nevertheless, shortly before noon I walked out to the garage, and without thinking anything at all – my mind was completely blank – randomly ambled over to a covered banker’s box sitting on a shelf, took the lid off and … voila! There inside was the blue measuring cup holding all the tools!

Recollection versus Recognition

If you’re like me, you probably have a harder time recalling things than recognizing things. The reason for this is that two different networks in the brain are involved. According to cognitive neuroscientist Adrian Owen, recognition takes place within circuitry found in the temporal lobes, while recollection occurs in the prefrontal areas. Fortunately, these prefrontal areas are subject to being able to be influenced by our attention and intention.

When I was moving things out the dining room into other areas, I wasn’t paying conscious attention to where I relocated many of the things I moved. Nevertheless, nerves in my hands, arms, legs, eyes, etc, were actively involved in the process, sending sensory signals from my body to my brain. But no language circuitry was involved with my moving the grooming tools to the garage, thus later my body seemed as if it was being wordlessly guided. If I had made a deliberate mental narrative note – intentionally said to myself: “I’m putting these grooming tools in this box and taking it to the garage ” – I more than likely would have immediately been able to identify where they were when my wife asked. While the “what” circuitry involved in me remembering actually moving the tools was available to me, the “where” memory circuits in my hippocampus were not. At least not consciously. Nevertheless, the experience/memory of where I put the tools was still a part of my sensory and motor networks. And this is what the Targeted Dream Incubation seems readily able to access, probably because in the cleared-out and prepared dream state, there was no longer a lot of other active brain circuitry running interference.

Back to the Future

Elements of the Targeted Dream Incubation were actually identified by Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, more than 100 years ago. The backward day review, or ruchschau, was developed as a part of his spiritual mind training protocols. Gayle Delaney and Loma K. Flowers, a psychologist and psychiatrist respectively, developed the Dream Interview and Questioning Protocol in the 1980s. And Lynne McTaggart researched and wrote about the power of intention all the way back in 2006.

So the recognition that our brain and body contain more information and experience than we normally have conscious access to has long been known. Who were we, for example, and what did we know before we lost 50% of our neurons in utero and before we acquired language? Might there be effective ways and means for gaining conscious access to more and more complex energy and information flow the way that people with hyperthymesia or synesthetes do? Hyperthymesics and Synesthetes have axons and dendrites that connect in ways that most of ours do not. Similar to them, might it be possible to intentionally grow neural network wiring and connections sufficient to consciously gain access to energy and information that is tantamount to … clairvoyance? Might I simply need to set an intention and practice getting my narrative-generating circuits (monkey mind) out of the way on a dedicated basis? In other words, can I at last train and learn to trust my Unthought Known and unknown known?

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“There won’t be peace on earth until the voices of the grandmothers are heard.”

~ Native American Teaching

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the Smithsonian Channel seriesAir Disasters. Every aviation accident the world over gets investigated for causes and conditions. After doing a deep dive into the FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) investigators are almost always able to piece together the (often) unpredictable, perfect storm of events that unfolds to bring about a crash. They then write up their findings with recommendations for engineering, training and procedural changes that continue to make air travel safer and safer.

Every episode of Air Disasters underscores the thousands of hours the pilots who crash have previously flown. That’s not a metric I’m particularly interested in. Quantity of flying hours is not quality of flying hours. I’d prefer to know how many life-threatening incidents pilots have been able to surmount, how many times they’ve had to think fluidly and flexibly in the face of unexpected, stressful challenges. I want to know how many crash landings they’ve previously survived.

Wise-end Democracy    

Similarly, in this democracy I live in, I want to know how many “disasters” or near-disasters candidates wanting my vote have survived. How often have they faced moral quandaries, self-interested seductions, or personal failings and managed to come through them with flying colors? In other words, I want the candidates I vote for to be … grandmothers. Or at least have “Grandmother’s Brain.” Unfortunately, our current political system provides few deliberate, constructive growth and redemption opportunities for politicians or voters.

I think of Grandmother’s Brain (if it hasn’t been adversely affected by compromising health conditions) as being unique in the human species. Not only have Grandmothers had the embodied experience of growing and bringing life into the world, but they have had to face and overcome decades and decades of real world challenges. It’s inevitable that a majority of them would acquire some degree of wisdom along the way.

Not to mention the contribution Grandmothers have apparently made to human evolution. A team of scientists from UCSD and Princeton published a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution showing that grandmothering might well have been an important driver of the evolution of certain genes that contribute to a healthy immune system, along with resistance to cognitive decline with age.

Much like the way Grandmothers “burnish a child’s development in unique and valuable ways”, they would bring similar engagement to the political process. Their capacity to think and feel their way into and through complex real-world circumstances would be unmatched – certainly by any 18-year-old whose brain doesn’t become fully mature until roughly age 25 (I’m guessing no wise Grandmother would pass laws allowing 18-year-olds to vote, drink or buy guns!).

Wisdom Practice

In order to safely face unexpected, stressful challenges and crash landings, pilots spend many hours of their training in cockpit flight simulators. Simulators are exact replicas of the same plane instrumentation pilots fly regularly. In the simulators they get to experience all kinds of things that can go wrong, from engine failures to stall warnings to retracted and stuck landing gear. The purpose of such training is much like learning the multiplication tables: they build brain networks over and over through practice and experience so that under stress, a pilot doesn’t have to think about what proper actions he or she should take. It’s embedded in the brain and muscle memory.

Through the long courses of their lives Grandmothers of the world have had similar training. While perhaps less structured, deliberate and intentional, nevertheless, going through childbirth and motherhood, no matter how many crash landings and aborted takeoffs a Grandmother may have had with her own children, she has inevitably gained learning and wisdom that can be obtained in few other ways.

If We Build It, They Will Run      

Healthy neural networks spend lifetimes moving in the direction of greater and greater connectivity and integration (learning). Greater connectivity and integration is able to process energy and information with increasing capacity for complexity. Grandmothers generally have access to a wider and deeper well of life’s complexities. They can see a much bigger picture than many of us. Many, simply as the result of a long life, possess neural networks steeped in The Six Transcendent Perfections of Buddhism: Generosity, Morality, Joyful Energy, Patience, Contemplation and Wisdom.

Who, in their right mind, would not champion and support such human beings serving as our elected representatives?

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There are any number of reasons, of course. I touched on one of the main reasons in the last blog post – all the (generally) negative opinions I have about others as a result of Naïve Realism. And as many of us have experienced directly from Polyvagal Theory, most all unwanted evaluation is experienced as threat. Who wants to have judgy people around saying and doing things that continually make us feel bad in our mind, brain and body?

Something called Signalling Theory provides another metric by which I can measure how well I play with others. One of the signals I have to send a potential friend is the amount of time I offer to spend with them. How much time? Well, 41 minutes a day is the average amount of time Americans currently devote to all socializing. I’m way below that. According to researcher Jeff Hall, I need to spend 60 hours over 9 weeks with someone I’m playing minimally well with. 100 hours means I’m pretty okay at playing. If I spend 200 hours or more, I’m a true-blue player. I seriously doubt that’s going to happen in my remaining lifetime.

But there’s a concurrent metric in Signalling Theory that additionally determines how well I play with others. And that is: how vulnerable am I in another person’s company? Showing vulnerability signals that I am very likely to be a trustworthy person. Personally, I suck at vulnerabiltiy. When it comes to the Scary Rule – if something scares you to say, say it – you’ll rarely hear a word out of me. In order to avoid having to say something vulnerable, what I mostly do is my best to focus the conversation on you and get you to be the vulnerable one. It’s a self-protective strategy that has essentially failed me for much of my life. Nevertheless, it works.

And the Winner Is …

In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, UCLA social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman writes: “The neural systems that handle social and nonsocial reasoning are quite distinct, and literally operate at odds with each other much of the time. The more you turn on the networks for nonsocial reasoning, the more you turn off the networks for social reasoning. This antagonism between social and nonsocial reasoning is really important because the more someone is focused on a problem, the more that person might be likely to alienate others around him or her who could help solve the problem.”

So, because of a structural limitation in my brain, I have a hard choice to make: direct the focus and emphasis of my daily life towards I.Q. (cognitive intelligence) or E.Q. (emotional intelligence). And my time spent undercover with some of the world’s best and brightest seems to bear this out: many of the esteemed scientists I observed for nearly a decade did not particularly play well with others. A preponderance of their lives was spent in the service of becoming world experts in their chosen field of knowledge rather than in cultivating social/emotional intelligence. In fact, the organization had to have a full time social director on staff to organize and facilitate various kinds of interactions between visiting scholars, in other words, to try to teach them to play well with others.

Transaction Jackson

Much of the difficulty in learning to play well with others originated in my close and extended family. In the 1950s and 1960s we didn’t know much about the lifelong, brain-disorganizing impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Decades later, after getting little help from professional therapists for what was essentially frequently having The Big Brain Question answered “No” for me, I came to the conclusion that transactional relationships were not sufficient to heal wounds that had taken place in non-transactional relationships (nuclear and extended families). People I was paying to “be there for me” were simply not going to be once I stopped writing the checks. And the conventions of the profession taught me not to expect them to. Transactional relationships had limited healing potential.

Science writer Eric Barker, in his recent book aptly named for this blog post, Plays Well With Others, points out similar limitations with communities like Multi-Level Marketing Organizations, Self-Help Groups and books like the perennially popular How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Friendship may be defined as mutual aid, but it is not transactional. We don’t keep score with friends. Our brains tell us the story that friends are a part of us, and this is how we overcome the dictates of ruthless Darwinianism and act altrusitically….Dale Carnegie got the initial parts of meeting people right, but then we must display the costly signals of time and vulnerabilty to forge and maintain true friendships that will last….We must aspire to a fearless open love that sees in others more good than danger.” This is something I consider worth aspiring to in the life time remaining to me.

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