Plain Old Therapy

Jon Allen has written a wonderful book called “Restoring Mentalizing in Attachment Relationships: Treating Trauma with Plain Old Therapy.” I have become enchanted with the idea of “plain old therapy.” Allen writes that in medicine we can have many specialists who are expert in the one area of disease and treatment, but we need a plain old family doc to look at the big picture: all the systems and how they work together. He sees himself as that generalist who talks to people and helps them think about the challenges they are facing, and offers whatever perspective he has from his own experience. This is plain old therapy.

Sometimes we believe we understand something because we can name it, define it, or describe it. But a lot of times that doesn’t really add anything beyond our own direct experience. This makes me think about sitting in many meetings at the high school where I worked as a social worker. The teachers, psychologist, social worker, and parents would discuss whether a student needed additional support from the school in terms of special education, extra tutoring or study skills classes.

I was always struck by the very professional report from the psychologist, with many results of testing, many numbers comparing the student to other students, and what appeared to be a comprehensive assessment. The social worker would give a developmental history. The teachers would weigh in on how hard the student was or was not working and what he or she was struggling with. And finally the parents would say, “He does better if he likes the teacher.” I always thought we could save a lot of everyone’s time and patience if we just went there from the beginning.

People do better with plain old relationships with people who care about them. Because if someone they respect cares about them, it helps them care about themselves. For our emotional, and by extension, psychological well-being, sometimes we don’t need a hyper specialized professional. sometimes we just need someone to talk to. Someone who knows how to make a relationship with us that could be the basis of more confidence, more competence, and more self compassion.

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Grandmother mind

One of the aspirations in Buddhist thought is to acquire what is called “grandmother mind.” Grandmother mind is the idea that you love unconditionally, guide and direct without judgment, share your wisdom, and accept all people with an affectionate understanding, (even when you do not collude with their conditioning or stories). Just like it sounds, grandmother mind is an indulgent, fearless interest in other people and the world.

So much of our current world is hurried, distracted, goal oriented, and fear-driven. We lose our connection with what matters to us in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. Of course, we do have to attend to the management of our lives, but we also need to attend to the quality of our time. The ongoing wish to return to “grandmother mind” is one way to keep the depth that makes our lives meaningful.

The term “grandmother mind” is taken from the Japanese expression “grandmother kindness,” which means that solicitous, slightly overly fussy attention that you get from your grandmother. In normal everyday speech it contains both the helpful aspects of this frame of mind and also the fussy over-attentiveness of it. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the focus is on a kind of non-grasping caring. It is a way of being optimistic, feeling good about our relationships with other people and the world, and also being able to allow the other person (or situation) to be what they are freely. We are not attached to other people, or aspects of the world or our lives, being a certain way in order for us to feel happy or to care about them.

Grandmother mind has a peacefulness to it, an engaged curiosity and interest, and calm good intentions or good will. Wishing you the best unfolding of your life and your circumstances, I am grateful for any time or connection I have with you, as you are. It is an aspiration, not a measure of our character. We move toward an easier, more joyful experience of ourselves moving through the world.




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Effort Equals Growth

Carol Dweck is a research psychologist at Stanford who has studied what she calls the growth mindset. Some people think they are naturally good or bad at something, like math, or naturally healthy or naturally talented. And some people think they get good at it as they try and practice and learn. She says people who understand that you get good at something by working at it do better over all and she says that you can learn to approach your life with a growth mindset.

And this works all over the place. It turns out that there is a part of your brain, deep behind your thoughts and emotions, that regulates your body function: your heart rate, breathing and so on. It’s kind of a reptilian part of the brain. And it turns out this part of your brain determines if the system, your body, is in a growth stage of life or a decline stage of life. It regulates your body based on this decision. While everyone ages, we can see that some people seem to age with more difficulties than others. Even though we cannot control that process completely, our lifestyle choices go a long way toward determining how that aging process unfolds.

And here is what is interesting: you cannot affect that reptilian part of your brain with your thoughts or your feelings. You affect it by what you physically do. If you are physically active, that part of your brain figures you are probably still in a growth phase and if you are sedentary, it takes that to mean you are in a declining stage of life. In other words, physical effort equals physical growth. Just like mental effort equals mental growth and psychological effort equals psychological growth.

Ultimately, the interesting thing about organic life is that it generates and regenerates. You don’t use it up like a bar of soap and you don’t wear it out like a car engine. It’s not like a computer in a machine. It creates itself. If you lift a weight a few times, your bicep generates more bicep. If you read about new ideas, your mind starts turning them over and thinking about them and connecting them with other ideas and generating ideas of its own. In other words, if you make any effort, physical, mental, emotional, whatever, you can activate that particular part of you to build more better, stronger parts.

Okay, what’s better than that? The creativity that is life generates more new things we cannot even imagine before we experience them. Our effort creates movement in the direction of generation. The problem with understanding things only with our past experience and the metaphors we create is that it limits our imaginations. We are not like computers. Computers are a little bit like us. In some ways. We are not like engines or hydraulic systems. We are like flower seeds and puppies and penguins.  We are pure potential looking to continually create ourselves. And effort motors this growth.

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People Change

People change over time. Often this is a result of relationships that affect them, unusual events in their lives, or accumulated life experience. Sometimes I will be talking with a couple and one of them will say to the other: “You’ve changed!” This can be an accusation or an appreciation. But often it comes with some sense of surprise. Even though we know, really, nothing stays the same.

People evolve. They think about things. They have loses. They have gains. They succeed at overcoming challenges, expected and unexpected. Or they fail at something that matters to them. They get clearer about who they want to be and they try to move toward that vision. They grow to love people and they outgrow other people. They change professions, locations, and whole identities.

With acceptance of the inevitability of change, and equanimity in the face of unfolding reality, we can remain curious, even about people whom we believe we know well. We can allow the space in a relationship to discover new versions of ourselves and for our friends and families to discover and create new versions of themselves.

Our own desires for the people we know to be predictable, emotionally reliable, and transparent can bind us in ways that prevent growth that could happen–for them and for us. We don’t even know what we are missing when we create limits. We operate out of a fear of loss, and we believe we are seeking reassurance or insurance.

But each living being has a will toward movement and growth, however that is imaginable and possible. We can be an obstacle or a facilitator. There is no standing still. And here we stop and reflect on who we want to be in our lives and in the lives of other people–our own ideals for ourselves–and how we can move toward those ideals, gradually becoming more like the person we want to be. How do we want to relate to the people we care about? What kind of impact do we wish to have in their own experience? What is our ideal about being a friend or partner? Because whatever we do, people change. They do and we do.

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Hijacked by Emotion?

Our emotional experience is incredibly important. E-motion is what puts us in motion. If we have feelings, we do something. It is harder to mobilize if we are neutral. Actually it might not even be possible to act without some feeling about what we are doing. In some fantasy olden days, people did not care about their emotions or each other’s emotions either. I’m not sure if that was ever true.

But right now, right here, we sometimes think our emotions are the most real part of who we are. We expect that our emotions are somehow coming from some deeper, more authentic part of our make-up, and they expose us for our fallibilities and weaknesses. We want to honor our emotions; express them; understand them; analyze them; use them as “gut instinct” and just generally let them run our lives.

But emotions are learned. They are the responses we were taught to associate with various experiences and those we generated out of fear, misunderstanding, or rage. They are not meaningless; and they certainly deserve to be taken seriously. But they are data. They do not tell us something more true about ourselves or each other than our thoughts, values, or choices tell us. We are complex beings with multidimensional meanings attached to our experiences, and we act out of a complex web of motives that is informed by our place in the larger world, historic events, cultural meanings, early learning, and physical realities.

We cannot be truly free to flexibly and thoughtfully respond to the world, each other, and ourselves if we are reacting out of unrecognized habits of thought and feeling. Our freedom comes from seeing our distortions as clearly as we can and reflectively and intentionally choosing how to understand and respond to our everyday lives. Of course we do try to manage our feelings. It’s just important not to let our feelings manage us.

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Growing. Old.

For their final papers, students in my classes interview an “old” person (over 60) about his or her life and write a description of this person. Reading these papers is always inspiring, surprising, and delightful. The students are usually in their twenties, or, at a stretch, their early 30’s. Many of them have never talked seriously with an elderly person. They find the assignment daunting and often complain that they do not know where to find an old person. They have many nervous questions about the assignment and about how to approach an older person.

Over the course of the next several weeks, each student interviews the same older person at least 3 times for one hour each time. There is a set of questions that are suggested to give the students an idea of how to get at important parts of a person’s life, but overall, the interviews are very free floating. Each semester that I teach this course, I look forward to these final papers. The stories are absorbing and the transformation in the students’ perspectives is even more remarkable.

One student noted in class that most people view elders as either slow, forgetful, and behind the times or wise gurus who have transcended everyday life. We tend to put things in either/or categories, and we have a hard time accepting complexity. But the older people have complex lives and histories, and the ways that they have overcome difficulties or created satisfying lives are unique and varied. People have dealt with trauma, either well or with difficulty. Health concerns sometimes overpower people’s efforts to create a healthy and active old age. And sometimes they don’t. People have financial worries or no financial worries, involvement with family or no involvement with family. They have active work or volunteering or they have hobbies and recreation.

One of the important learnings for students is how much people’s lives reflect their choices and efforts from earlier in their lives. Building a life happens at times subtly and slowly and at times instantly and profoundly. Each interviewee has been faced with life circumstances and unexpected events, and how they have responded to these facts has a huge impact on the quality of their lives later.

At the end of the semester, the students are transformed. Their interviewees have taken great pleasure in sharing their life stories and explaining why they have made the choices they have made. Students are amazed at the happiness and well-being that most of the elders express. The students perspectives have been completely changed and many of the students decide that they will work with an elderly population for their careers. It is a fun transformation to watch, and always a learning experience for everyone.

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Living with Depth

I’ve been thinking about how to describe the experience of living with depth. We are in such a fast-paced, hyperconnected, ambitious world, we find ourselves chasing ever more speed and efficiency at the expense of the experiences that require more depth, more time, and more thought. And I began to think about what depth really means. It has to do with moments of experience where we have some resonance or awareness within ourselves I think.

Sometimes you are sitting somewhere and you suddenly realize what a spectacular moment it is. It may be an encounter with another person, sitting in a beautiful spot, or hearing something delightful–music, or a baby laughing, or the sound of a stream. You feel as if you have woken up out of a sleepwalking pattern and recognized the absolute miracle of everyday life.

In the same way, you can sometimes see the profound value of those things that require time to create or develop, that require your total attention and thought, that have immense significance that cannot be explained. These aspects of depth cannot be found without enough time and space. Our usual mode of trying to be more productive and more efficient just won’t deliver the same type of value.

In some ways, it is the old-fashioned approach of stopping, noticing, thinking, being with someone, taking time that allows those parts of our human capacity to surface. We do not trust that our inner selves have more to offer. We over-rely on our conscious, obvious thinking, and we under-estimate how very much we have inside of ourselves. There are no short-cuts to those depths. We cannot think harder and smarter and get there faster. This depth of experience must be allowed to arise at its own pace.

This grounded connection with ourselves and our lives is the focus of many of the wisdom traditions. There is a larger teaching about stepping back from the details of day to day life and getting in touch with something both larger than ourselves and deeper than our everyday conscious train of thought. There are many avenues to develop this capacity, like meditation or depth psychotherapy. But they require that we slow down, change our measure of success, and appreciate our experience in a different way.

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Recently in talking with students about future goals, thinking about the complexities of modern life and political stresses, and looking at the outcomes of choices made by friends and colleagues, it has seemed to me that many of our limitations are more a limitation of imagination than of circumstances or capabilities. We can do more than we think we can, and we can expect more than we think we can for the most part. We can expect more of ourselves than we think we can.

I tell my students over and over, “Your future is limited only by your imagination.” That doesn’t mean that anything is possible, but it does mean that possibilities could be anything. By that I mean that with sufficient imagination, we can manage any bends in the road we set off on. The whole business of visualization and mental rehearsal, which seems a bit of delusional magical thinking, actually is one way to unleash our imagination–at least a little bit.

We rein ourselves in so that we will not be disappointed when we fail to reach our goals. We establish limits so that we don’t seem selfish, or grandiose, or crazy. Hedging our bets, playing it safe, sitting on the sidelines. Yes, we avoid some losses, but we do without a lot of gains that we don’t even know we are missing. We short-circuit joyful abandon and silly immaturity.

What would happen if we spent time daydreaming pictures of what we really want instead of being mature and figuring out what might be possible. What distances might we go if we didn’t have goals, but fantasies?  What if we dreamed the dreams that freed our imaginations to puff up into light, beautiful clouds of possible pictures? Now that might be interesting.

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Our Wish to Downplay

One of the most important wishes for people is to be heard and taken seriously: to be believed and respected. But we tend to hear what people tell us through the filters in our own minds. One filter is the wish for reality to be a certain way: For example, if someone we care about tells us they are sad, we do not want to know their reality. It is worrisome and makes us sad. So we tell them it will pass, cheer up, or distract yourself. We have a hard time sitting with the unhappiness of the people we love. We interpret reality in ways that will make us feel more comfortable. We want to believe it is not that bad.

A second filter is understanding another person’s experience as it would feel to us. When that loved one is sad, we reference our own experiences of being sad and believe that it is the same for that other person. But we don’t really know. And sometimes we don’t really want to know. We don’t want to feel bad, and so we negotiate with reality: It’s not that bad. It will pass. I’ve been there. You just have to….work through it, go for a run, go out with friends.

Each of those “solutions” may be valid and useful, but they are also ways of not being able to deeply listen to another person’s experience. Life is complex, difficult, and uncertain. We don’t like to acknowledge that truth. And we don’t like to sit with another person who is struggling with their own experience of truth. It is hard to stop and listen to what is real for that person.

Instead we veer between over-reacting by listening to our own fears about the situation and under-reacting by trying to get pain relief for our worry. It is difficult to stop all that internal noise and be curious, open to another person’s experience, and patient about allowing space and time. What is it really like for that person? How does it feel to be in the middle of that other life? We do not have a privileged understanding of reality or truth. We have our own filters from our own histories. And, of course, the same is true for the other person. We can only truly be together with another person if we are willing to work at understanding our own inner reality and being genuinely open to theirs.

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Taking Care of People

The drama in Thailand with the rescue of 13 boys from a flooded cave is a stark lesson for us as world citizens. As the world waited, over one thousand people from all over the world amassed at the site of the trapped boys and created strategies and logistical efforts to free them. The cooperation, courage, and effort that was required to bring them all safely out of the cave is inspiring and moving.

It is fitting that Thailand would be a world leader in ethical behavior. Almost every young man there spends at least some time as a Buddhist monk, learning the rules and ethical systems of that way of life. In fact, the soccer coach who was with the boys was a monk for 8 years. The monks in Thailand have to learn and follow over 200 rules of behavior and ethics. The fact that families in Thailand value learning ethical thinking to the extent that almost all of them send their young boys to monasteries is a great statement about the importance of  values in living.

It is also moving to know that half of the boys were immigrants from Myanmar. In fact, when they were first found, by a British diver, only one of the 13 spoke English: a young immigrant who spoke 4 languages. Some of the boys had been thrust over the border from Myanmar by their parents in hopes that they would have a better life and avoid the danger of where they were living. The coach himself was orphaned and sent to live in a monastery, which explains his eight years of training as a monk

The fact that the coach could teach the boys to meditate so that they remained calm and did not use too much oxygen; that he knew to tell them to drink only the water dripping from the top of the cave, which was rain water and cleaner than the water on the bottom of the cave; that he could provide strong leadership; these qualities are part of what helped the boys survive. It is a great advantage that he had this knowledge.

The divers individually worked their way into the cave and brought out the boys one by one, four hours in and four hours back, under water, climbing over obstacles, squeezing through narrow passages. They taught the boys to breathe using the oxygen tanks. Then each diver carried his own tank and the tank for one boy and led the boy to safety. These divers were from all over the world, not just from Thailand. One diver lost his life in this effort.

The miracle of rescuing these 13 boys out of a flooded cave, in a journey that took close to four hours each way,  and involved over one thousand people from all over the world, is a stark lesson in the necessity of community. We cannot succeed in our lives alone, no matter how many resources we have. We need the many other people in the community and in the world who are working and growing and developing qualities and skills in order to function together. Our world has become completely interdependent. We have problems to solve and a future to build. This can only happen when we understand that we are all, all of us, in it together.

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