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Posts Tagged ‘Right Listening’

“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you don’t like to play with much.” ~ James, age 7

When I was a kid, I was a canny little outlaw who somehow managed to finagle a little black and white Philco TV set to watch in my own bedroom. Whenever my mother wanted to punish me, she would take one of the vacuum tubes out of the back of the TV set. I would fly into a rage in response to this clearly unfair act, which would promptly cause her to get a belt and threaten to beat me if I didn’t go immediately to my disabled-TV bedroom (I don’t ever recall her actually hitting me with a belt, but threats to do so were not uncommon). I would then reluctantly go to my room and stay there.  During summers, when school was out, I would end up staying there for days! Ultimately, hunger or loneliness or boredom or all three would work to get me to gingerly emerge from that self-inflicted prison, but nothing would be discussed about the incident at all, ever. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. No discussion intended to repair this relationship breech ever took place.

Ambivalent Attachment

This early lack of reliable engagement and contingent communication was profoundly detrimental to my early brain development. It directly led to a way of being in the world for me that developmental psychologists would identify – using the Adult Attachment Inventory – as “Insecure-Avoidant/Ambivalent.” A simple way to describe that orientation is how my mother would often say it: “People make me ‘nern’.” People make me nervous. They made her nervous, and her way of parenting unfolded such that it ended up making me nervous as well (had she actually beaten me with the belt, the odds of “disorganized” attachment being the result would have significantly increased, along with the probability of me ending up in jail for one “Impulse Crime” or another).

Fierce Listening.jpgBeing nervous around other people, whether as a result of painful early experiences at their hands, or by neglect, is not so good for intimacy or everyday social-emotional engagement. It’s also not so good for brain development in general. In order to regulate the stress chemicals that being around other people generates, I would frequently be forced to withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone. People sometimes call this tendency “being an introvert” (nevermind that Oxford professor of neuro-pharmacology, Susan Greenfield thinks that technology may be creating a whole planet of “introverts” – people excessively anxious around other humans). One way to think about my introversion is that I simply didn’t have sufficient operating bandwidth in my brain to allow me to easily self-regulate in the company of others (one of the reasons I teach listening skills to clinicians and have written 5 books on the topic is because skillful listening is a great practice for carving out internal space. Listening allows me to buy time around other people so I can center and emotionally self-regulate).

Ghosts of Days Gone By

Gradually, over the years I’ve discovered that when I spend time with different people over an extended period, if they don’t initially show up as someone important from my past, sooner or later my brain will morph them into someone of significance. Usually someone I have some unfinished business with … most often, mom or dad (which Freud recognized as transference and counter-transference nearly 100 years ago). In my case, my older sister Andrea, who functioned as my mom in the early years, is also a morphing possibility.

Unfinished business seems to live in the brain and body (and probably the heart and other parts of the somatic hologram as well) as repositories of emotionally charged memories – collections of neurons that have been taken offline for prolonged periods. With the neural real estate holding traumatic memories reclaimed and restored to good network operating condition, our brains become capable of processing exponential increases in energy and information. We become smarter, healthier and much more capable of showing up fully in the present moment. Except for one thing …

Good Corner Man and Cut Man

… healing painful early experiences in the present is NOT EASY and NOT FUN. It’s painful! If the choice is hanging out with people who trigger painful explicit conscious memories (or unconscious painful implicit memories) or hanging out with people who are fun and a joy to be with, most of us will choose to hang with the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until those people morph into some ghostly Painbringer from the Past, of course. I’ve written about this difficulty before because of how crucial, critical, essential, vital and important I think it is. Electing not to repair ruptured relationships is like a neuron in the temporal lobe – essential for hearing – deciding not to maintain crucial connections with a speech or language neuron in Broca’s or Wernicke’s area in the brain. The network ends up not working very well. When whole collections of people assembled in countries elect not to repair ruptured relationships, the world ends up not working very well.

My experience with people offering their services as healers is pretty extensive, and mostly unsatisfactory. But what I’ve found is that the few of them who were skillful healers tended to operate as good “Corner men” or “Cut men” in boxing. They went beyond the healer role and had the skills to address whatever happened in the ring. Through experience I came to trust that by the final bell, they’d still be there in my corner. And no matter what it took, I could count on them to get me through the ordeal. They continually managed to explicitly and implicitly answer The Big Brain Question Yes! for me. Somehow, I came to trust their experience and their expertise. But most importantly the quality of their presence and compassionate heart would work to soothe and calm me and help restore my emotional equilibrium after a ten round psychological battle with the demons arising from my personal past. Without that trust and confidence in their capable heart, the possibility of reenactment without resolution comes with too high a neurological price. And it’s one that I’m no longer willing to pay.

How then, best to skillfully do the work of repair? A crucial, critical, essential vital topic for another day. But note: sometimes it takes a posse.

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So, God and the Devil are trekking together down one of Heaven’s more treacherous pearly paths one winter morning. God has his hands cupped tightly in front of him.

“Whatcha got in there?” the Devil inquires.

“Nothing you’d be interested in,” God answers.

“You sure? How about letting me have a little peek. Then I can decide.”

God replies, “I don’t think so. There’s little enough of this in the world already without you looking to further reduce the supply.”

“How about if I promise not to reduce the supply, then?” the Devil replies.

“Except you always find some weaselly way around your promises,” God says, clutching his hands even tighter.

“Scout’s Honor,” the Devil says, raising his right hand and tail simultaneously, and giving God his most vulnerable, most innocent look.

Reluctantly, God begins to slowly open his hands.

“Ahhh!” the Devil exclaims, his eyes suddenly ablaze. “Truth! Here let me take that and organize it for you!”

If there’s one thing the study of the brain has taught me over the last half dozen years, it’s that the enormous complexity involved in each of our neural networks makes organizing Truth a doomed enterprise from the get-go. There can be no optimal, organized, one-size-fits-all: religion, government, education, medicine or weight-awareness program. We are each too complex for such uniformity. When I learned that my very first truth teacher, Jiddhu Krishnamurti, had disbanded his own growing spiritual organization early on and declared “Truth is a pathless land,” I think he was reflecting a basic neural reality. It certainly rang true for me when I learned of it, and it rings even more true for me now.

When the Truth is True

So, what that essentially means is that Truth is only true, if and when it’s true for me and my own unique neuro-amalgamation. And likewise, Truth is only true for our kids when something is actually true for them. Where I got into a lot of confusion as a parent was in the many instances when I unconsciously assumed that what was true for me should be true for my daughter. For example, about how safe the world is. My world is a very dangerous one. It’s a world that requires that children be vigilantly protected at all times. It never occurred to me that what my daughter might need to be protected from was … me! From my own conditioned, unconscious, distorted, fear-based view of the world. For starters.

While a lot can be intuited and inferred about what’s true for our kids simply by living with them, much more can be determined from … deliberately observing them. And learning to listen deeply to them, while simultaneously being committed to skillfully attending to our own emotional reactivity (Which seems to be a life’s work, actually!). It helps if we can handle the truth.

When the Truth is False

In my experience my body is able to scope out what’s true and what’s false much better than my brain. A recent example: a mortgage banker was explaining to me why his $5000 refi fee was really only $3400. His pitch was that because I would not be making the next $1600 payment to my current bank while the existing loan was paid off and the new loan was put in place, I was saving that money. That claim immediately raised some tension in my stomach, but all I could do was listen as he explained how all his fees would be absorbed in little more than a year by the savings produced by lower payments. Later, when I looked at the detailed expense breakdown, it was obvious that I would not actually be missing a payment; I would simply be paying it in an extra month tacked onto the back end of the new loan.

And it makes sense that I would first feel the untruth of that banker’s statement in my stomach. I’ve already written here about the 100,000 neurons that make up our Second Brain. And things that we can’t stomach – like untruths – often register there or in the neuronal clusters that transmit The Heart’s Code. The challenge for many of us is to grow enough neural fibers from those organs to sufficiently robust centers in the brain where those signals are received so that we can honor and attend to what they might be trying to tell us. (Some further life’s work for many of us).

The Truth Organized

One reason that Truth becomes such a fertile playground for the Devil when we attempt to organize it I think, is that it becomes harder to stay in touch with our own inner organ truth detectors. It’s much easier to be swayed by my brain’s intellectual authority allied with like authority delivered with great assurance by similar brains. And when one banker brain divorces itself from stomach and heart time after time with clients and with each other, the result is the world-wide financial morass we’re currently trying to extricate ourselves from. And when leaders of governments separate brain from stomach and heart, the result will invariably be much like the disorder that is currently unfolding in Northern Africa. Truth apparently wants to have itself set free. And there will be Hell to pay when it’s not.

And then there’s the Truth of Neuroscience


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I’ve been researching, teaching and practicing listening skills for more than two decades now. In that time, during which I’ve published five books on listening, three things have become abundantly clear. ear-conch2First, most people are surprised to learn how profoundly different simple hearing and deeply listening really are … and how poorly most  of us perform the latter.

Next, aspiring clinicians and counselors are equally surprised to discover just how challenging  listening skillfully actually is – it requires us to pay close attention to ourselves and others on many levels, similar to the way the U.S. First Lady and President-elect do.  And finally, while people generally understand that direct benefits result from being listened to – from being able to give honest, authentic voice to our experiences to a significant other – they are often genuinely surprised to discover that even greater benefits actually accrue to the listener themselves!  So, it’s particularly encouraging that the day after Thanksgiving has been declared A National Day of Listening.

The Einstein of the Ear

Hearing is one of the first of our senses to come online and the last of our senses to leave. This isn’t an accident, it turns out. Alfred Tomatis was a controversial medical researcher known familiarly among the French as “the Einstein of the Ear.” Tomatis postulated that hearing first becomes listening for a five week old fetus as it learns to discriminate between the many sounds it hears in utero – heartbeat, digestion, breathing, etc. Eventually, it begins to pay special attention to the intermittent, reinforcing sounds of mother’s voice. This voice has been confirmed to drive early brain development and will have special healing (or disruptive) properties for a child all across the lifespan. How many of us still bristle at our mother’s disapproval? Interestingly, recent research by Danish bio-physicist Thomas Heimburg seems to confirm that it is the energy of sound propagation that apparently underlies neural transmission and development.

The Enemy of Compassion

I started a career as a volunteer grief counselor as a pretty poor listener. What made me less than skillful was something pretty basic – anxiety. And anxiety, it turns out, is a product of our neurology. Anxiety is what we feel most often in response to threat, and strangers – especially strangers who are dying of cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or who are grieving a child who has died from leukemia or been killed in a traffic accident. These people all posed a threat to a greenhorn grief counselor. But fortunately there’s an antidote to anxiety: repetition and familiarity. Knowing this, Kara, the Palo Alto grief counseling agency where I volunteered for many years, kept me working with clients until finally, after about six months, my anxiety lessened and the clients began to stick.

ear-cuff-spiroWhat changed over those six months? First of all, I was part of a support group of experienced grief counselors who met together weekly to discuss clients and we had permission to tell the truth about our challenges. Rather than the regular condemnation I delivered to myself, this support group was compassionate and understanding – they’d all been beginners at one time themselves.

Next, was a requirement to develop some practices to help calm myself down. Exercising before and after spending time with a client helped. So did doing 7-11 breathing – an in-breath to a count of seven and out to a count of eleven. Smart Moves developed by biologist Carla Hannaford, also helped. These are a series of movements that cross the mid-line of the body. While I know of only anecdotal accounts, this cross-body movement is believed to help brain neurons fire across brain hemispheres, helping with what Dr. Bonnie Badenoch identifies as the Nine Pathways of Neural Integration. An integrated brain appears to be much better able to manage anxiety.

Teach What you Most Want to Learn

Another thing I did to help improve my listening, was to take the advice of Jim Fadiman, one of my graduate school professors. Jim advised that if you really want to learn something well, teach it. And so I did. Through the local University Extension program I designed and offered a course entitled “Deep Listening.” And people actually paid good money and faithfully showed up for it. We mostly explored all the ways they were poor listeners, and I began to even more fully appreciate just how challenging this craft really was. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who struggled.

I found and presented a number of interesting research studies on listening to these classes. One was done by Carolyn Schwartz and Rabbi Meir Sendor. Patients with multiple sclerosis were split into two groups. Members of one group were the designated listeners, the others the designated speakers. They were given pre- and post-tests designed to measure “response shift” – changes in internal standards, values, and the definition of life quality. The patients who were listened to improved significantly, but surprisingly, it turned out that the patients who did the listening improved even more! This dovetails well with Stephen Post’s empirical research on altruism and health, by the way.

american-willing-to-listen3I also introduced the students to Fran Peavey, a San Francisco-based community organizer. Fran developed a series of facilitative questions that she identifies as strategic, change-drivers. They were formed out of her “field research” in foreign lands where she would simply stand on a street corner with a big cardboard sign that read: “American, willing to listen.” As Yogi Berra might say, “You can hear a lot by listening!”

Another interesting account is provided by Colorado psychologist and former ISSSEM board president, Christine Hibbard who found that the local healer in a community of Māori in New Zealand had a 98% cure rate. When someone was sick, he simply gathered the community together, put the sick person in the center and asked them one question over and over: “What is it you’re not saying?” This reminds me of Saying Number 70 in the Gnostic Gospels: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  

Finally, a prospective study by Stephanie Brown at the Institute for Social Research as the University of Michigan indirectly suggests that becoming a skillful listener and effectively using those skills in support of others actually works to extend your whole lifespan! Who knew?

Generative Listening

So, what is this seemingly magical power that listening holds? I’m not sure, but Peter Senge and his colleagues at MIT in their book, Presence, describe something they call generative listening. Generative listening asks us to examine what lies at the heart of our work and our lives. The power of such inquiry is wonderfully captured by pastoral counseling professor, David Augsberger who observed: “An open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart” and “Being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.” Might listening skillfully somehow activate the energy of the heart, which researchers at the Heartmath Institute tell us generates a magnetic field 5000 times stronger than any other organ in the body? I wouldn’t be surprised. In my estimation the work of becoming skilled at listening is learning any number of ways of putting the strength of this organ into optimal service. What’s your best sense?  If you think this human enterprise is worth exploring further, smileygrouphug2I cordially invite you to take a look at this piece I was recently interviewed for by the L. A. Times, (Click on the “Living Well” link on the left side of the page), or you might check out this recent compilation …

Fierce_Listening_Blue_Canyon_Full_Cover_Create_Space_062615-785x592

To order this book of skills that includes recent research from trauma studies, somatic psychology and social neuroscience, simply Click Here.

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