In these perilous times, when the rules are changing and the social safety nets are unraveling so quickly, when personal or family security seems several deep notches more uncertain; it’s of great value to know what is ultimately trustworthy, for ourselves, and for everyone we feel responsible for.
Mapping the four styles of coping with life identified by attachment researchers onto four key mental states of Buddhist spiritual practice gives me deeper insight into where true security lies.
“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
– Irish blessing
“In the sangha (community) is the whole of the holy life.”
We explore the exquisite dovetailing below.
COMMUNITY OFFERS TRUE SECURITY
When we feel safe, connected, belonging, seen, understood, loved, and accepted for who we are, we tend to be open, trusting, engaged, flexible, resilient in our relationships and in our dealings with our selves and our world.
This is the essence of secure attachment, an internalized “working model” of safety and trust that is neurologically embedded in the deepest memory circuits of our brains when we have been parented by folks who could be secure themselves in responding to our fears and tantrums as we were growing up, helping us find our inner resilience in a precarious world.
Secure attachment – or the internalized secure base we learn to trust in ourselves because of it – is the platform in biological terms for what we experience as our True Nature in spiritual terms. This True Nature, accessed through practices of gratitude, compassion, generosity, awareness, equanimity, is the natural ease and well-being of a calm, clear mind and a trusting, open heart.
This inner security, this deep, steady knowing that we are fundamentally OK in our being, is the true security of a human life. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to die or lose people dearest to us; it doesn’t mean we’re not going to experience disappointment and discouragement when dreams are dashed; it simply means we are fundamentally solid and equanimous in our whole being, calmly abiding in our True Nature, and we will find our way through whatever, no matter what.
When our earliest experiences with our parents have been less than optimal, our minds and hearts tend to learn less-than-secure ways of feeling, dealing and relating. And those less-than-secure styles of relating – the other three attachment styles – map well to the three Buddhist hindrances – greed, hatred and delusion – that de-rail or obscure our innate True Nature.
The insecure avoidant attachment style maps well to the hindrance of aversion: avoidance, denial, pushing away, anger, hostility, hatred. We push away experiences we don’t like; feelings we don’t like, people we don’t like. We can appear independent or autonomous. (secure!) but in attachment terms we are compulsively self-reliant, not able to related to people well, often angry or hostile to other people depending on us or clinging to us. Sometimes not even able to take in very well other people loving us or seeing the good in us. Our sense of security is false; not anchored in connection, isolated and therefore vulnerable.
The insecure anxious attachment style maps more to the hindrance of greed: wanting, grasping, clinging, must have, addictions. We may desperately cling to relationships, thinking our security lies “out there”: “Are you there for me? Are you going to leave me? My world revolves around you. What can I do to make you happy?” We can appear very loving, very close and intimate, but in attachment terms we are compulsively caregiving without healthy individuation or healthy boundaries. We are inclined to under-value ourselves, not know our own self-worth, our own natural goodness or what we genuinely have to offer others.
When we are insecure anxious, we may think security lies in having more, more income, more savings in the bank, more customers, more cars. It’s the more, the grasping, the greed that tips us into insecurity again. For there is never, ever enough “out there” to soothe the fears of deprivation within. The hole within must be filled and healed from within, and it’s filled by our goodness, capacities, resilience being seen and supported by others. True heart and soul connections with true others lead to true contentment with “the gift of my portion.”
Moments of disorganized attachment map to the hindrance of delusion: ignorance, confusion, dissociation, fog, denial, not present, not engaged, not aware of one’s self or others. In benign moments we may be coping with an impossible situation by imagining we’re on vacation in Tahiti, far, far away from whatever mess and stress we might find ourselves in at the present moment. In more threatening or abusive situations we might find ourselves dropping into a void of helplessness and terror, paralyzed to take effective action or cope in a skillful way.
These four attachment patterns are embedded in the neural circuitry of our brains by the time we are 12-18 months of age and operate implicitly – outside our awareness – lifelong. Those are the “beyond irrefutability” findings of 50 years of human development research. These styles of relating parallel our styles of resilience, too, whether we meet the challenges and catastrophes of our lives anchored in trust, or repeating patterns of avoidance (pausing away even what’s trustworthy), pursuing people, activities, things “out there” rather than feeling complete within, or falling apart, when the deep re-Source of our resilience, our True Nature, falls off the radar altogether.
The rest of this newsletter offers tools and resources to re-establish the connections in our lives that deepen our sense of security and restore our faith in the power of connectedness to see us through.
Relationships can activate the release of oxytocin in the brain; a flood of this bonding hormone can help the brain generate deep feelings of trust and well-being.
If we’ve been hurt or abused in relationships in the past, it seems counter-intuitive that newer, healthier relationships could help generate a new sense of safety and security in the present. But modern neuroscience is helping us understand how this could be.
Oxytocin, the hormone of bonding and attachment, acts as a down-regulator of our body’s responses to stress. According to Oxytocin Linked Antistress Effects, when oxytocin is released, blood pressure lowers and cortisol levels plummet.
Oxytocin is released in the brain any moment we know we are deeply loved and cherished, or when we love and cherish others.
Researchers have discovered that oxytocin – sometimes called the neuropeptide of trust – can be released in the brain from all kinds of social interactions, evoking an inner sense of well-being that facilitate flexibility and openness to change.
Parents and family members can activate the release of oxytocin in their infants and toddlers, evoking a sweet sense of security. If that doesn’t go so well, later in life playmates, friendships, romantic partners, support groups, spiritual communities can activate the same release of the hormone through the same circuits in the brain.
Dan Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships: “The systems that secrete these chemicals of nurturing love provide some of the neural cement for the loving bond. These brain chemicals evoke the inner sense that everything is all right, possibly the biochemical basis for what Erik Erickson called a basic sense of trust in the world.
“Oxytocin has a short half-life in the brain – it’s gone in just a matter of minutes. But close, positive long-term relationships may offer us a relatively steady source of oxytocin release; every hug, friendly touch, and affectionate moment may prime this neurochemical balm a bit.
“The benefits of oxytocin seem to emerge in a variety of pleasant social interactions – especially caregiving in all its forms. Where people exchange emotional energy, they can actually prime in each other the good feelings that this molecule bestows. When oxytocin releases again and again – as happens when we spend a good deal of time with people who love us – we seem to reap the long-term health benefits of human affection. Repeated exposures to the people with whom we feel the closest social bonds can condition the release of oxytocin, so that merely being in their presence, or even just thinking about them, may trigger in us a pleasant dose. Small wonder that cubicles in even the most soulless of offices are papered with photos of loved ones.”
When we can cultivate ways to release oxytocin in our own brains and feel a felt sense of trust and the comfort of bonding, we can also calm down our own fear responses and de-stress. We learn to do that in Exercises to Practice below.
Jean Shinoda Bolen wrote her book The Millionth Circle to suggest that when enough people come together in enough communities, support groups, and sacred circles, the energy of our collective brains could tip our society into a new paradigm of cooperation and collaboration rather than dog eat dog.
Similar to the genetic re-programming researches found in macaque monkeys in Japan. One monkey would watch another monkey dip a sweet potato into a stream to wash the dirt off. The observing monkey would “learn” the new behavior by watching (mirror neurons); the new behavior would create new neural pathways in the observing monkey’s brain. By the 100th monkey, the learned behavior had changed the genes in the observing monkeys neural circuitry; now monkeys knew from birth to wash their sweet potatoes in the stream without having to watch another monkey to learn how to do it.
We do re-train our brains to rely on community and cooperation to get us through rough times by relying on community and cooperation to get us through rough times. It becomes the new genetic programming to take shelter in each other, to take refuge in sangha.
Here’s small example:
A dear friend, who asked to remain anonymous, retired last year at the age of 80. Even before the downturn in the economy, she was learning to live frugally on a fixed income. She was also learning to cope with two hip replacements and one knee replacement meant to relive crippling arthritis.
When the economy did fall apart and my friend still experienced immobilizing pain despite her surgeries, she rallied herself the way she had for the last 35 years. She sought out community to re-Source her in her own coping and healing. With a friend she had already been in an ongoing spiritual growth group with for 28 years, she joined a new women’s group to “reconnect with the consciousness of abundance.” My friend, at 81, set the intention to recover abundant health, energy and mobility. Someone else new to the group had also being dealing with chronic pain for the last year and was finally finding some relief through a Czech exercise program called Egoscue. My friend called the local practitioner and, after three sessions, has experienced substantial relief from the pain and increased mobility.
My friend’s experience goes deeper than networking or learning a new behavior. It’s about relying on community for re-Sourcing, trusting that tapping into the wisdom of the larger collective will improve our coping and deepen our trust in our own resilience.
Service to the Community
My neighbors Barb and Bob Hirni recently returned from a week in New Orleans, their third trip in three years to help re-build homes devastated by hurricane Katrina.
This year they hung sheetrock, painted walls, re-did floors in the home of a fireman who had been one of the first responders when Katrina high winds and flooding caused the evacuation of 90% of New Orleans’ residents. Ironically, the hard hit 9th ward had the highest percentage of owner occupied homes in the U.S. at the time, meaning people lost their life savings and security in a matter of hours.
“It’s the churches, college groups, Habitat for Humanity that have remembered; the lack of government help has been pitiful,’ Bob said. “3/4 of the cost of a home is the labor, so even when disaster relief buys the materials, folks still need the labor of volunteers to complete the project.”
Local officials estimate it will be 2020 before homes are fully restored and the population fully returned home. Barb and Bob plan to return each year with other volunteers from their church. “The outpouring of gratitude is overwhelming. Strangers see our T-shirts and come up to thank us profusely. And the fellowship among the volunteers from all around the country is so sustaining. It’s truly gratifying to feel something you’re doing in this world that matters” said Barb.
Each of knows somebody like the Hirni’s, each of us is somebody like the Hirni’s in our own way. See Exercises to Practice for ways you can build more security into the world by building community.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.
– Marianne Williamson
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Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other’s faults and failures.
– Mother Theresa
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We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been – a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of form time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.
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If I have been of service, If I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day.
– Alex Noble
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A Great Need
Out of a great need
We are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Is far too dangerous
– Hafiz, The Gift
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Optimal sculpting of the pre-frontal cortex through healthy early relationships allows us to think well of ourselves, trust others, regulate our emotions, maintain positive expectations, and utilize our intellectual and emotional intelligence in moment-to-moment problem solving. We can now add a corollary to Darwin’s survival of the fittest: “Those who are nurtured best, survive best.”
– Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Where does the courage come from, to run the race to the end, from within?
– Eric Liddell, Olympic gold medalist in track, 1924
Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29
An unlikely teaching story, but then it was the unlikeliest outcome of any football game in history. And often the deepest truths of courage, integrity, perseverance when all seems lost, hanging on when the game seems already over, play themselves out on a football field or baseball diamond or basketball court, the daring teamwork it takes for a college football team to score 16 points in the last 42 seconds of the game.
November 23, 1968 –our country torn up by the war in Vietnam, heroes of the civil rights movement and the hope for political reform assassinated earlier that year. Demonstrations and sit-ins shutting down universities, a whole generation (your generation? it was mine) challenging the mis-guided priorities of their elders. Was our society going to demolish itself from within?
Yale and Harvard met on the football field that day, academic rivals for 350 years already Yale undefeated that season, never even behind that season; their quarterback (Brian Dowling immortalized as “B.D.” in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury) had never lost a game since the 7th grade.
Harvard was a more rag-tag team of good enough this and OK enough that. The documentary I saw by Kevin Rafferty emphasized Harvard’s teamwork. One player was a Marine just returned from Vietnam; another was organizing class boycotts to protest the war; another spent the day crossing the picket lines of those boycotts, one after the other. When it came time to play football, their loyalty to each other and to their goals as a team put all that aside. (Preview of not red states or blue states but the United States?)
Not playing well and trailing badly, 29-13, in the actual last minute of the game Harvard scores a touchdown and the extra two points. In the last 3 seconds of the game, the quarterback throws a pass that is caught in the end zone after the clock has run out. Harvard makes the extra two points. The newspaper headline read Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 because the tie score was such a triumph of faith and perseverance beyond imagining.
I saw this film as I was percolating the ideas for this newsletter. Astonished that a moment in sports history could convey so much loyalty and courage in the face of unrelenting defeat. But it did. It was people refusing to let each other down that turned things around when defeat seemed certain. I truly believe, when we all choose to hang in there together, we can do the same.
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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
– Margaret Mead
Playing for Change: Peace through Music
As a psychotherapist steeped in the power of eye contact (mirror neurons), touch (releasing oxytocin and soothing the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system) and perceiving subtle shifts in body energy (markers of implicit memories being evoked) to sustain deep connection between people and, from the safety of that connection, grow new neural pathways of trust and resilience, I’ve been a bit skeptical of people “connecting” through the internet. No visual signals in e-mails or texting or twittering; emotional signals could be mis-interpreted so easily!
And yet, when people want to build a World Wide Web of heart connection, when young people are inspired to create the sense of community that creates more trust and safety in the world, the internet is unsurpassed for accessing the information that helps people everywhere connect very quickly.
When my friend Bette’s friend Lisa e-mailed her the link to a Bill Moyers Journal interview with Mark Johnson, co-producer of the documentary Playing for Change: Peace through Music, Bette immediately sent the link to her friend Darla who forwarded it on to her musician daughter Amelia.
Mark Johnson had recorded over 100 street musicians from around the world over ten years. He synthesized the recordings of them all playing the same songs, so that on the film Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, all the musicians were playing the same song together, for instance Stand by Me, though from different parts of the world at different times. A cellist from Russia, a tabla player from Nepal, a saxophonist from France, vocalists from South Africa and Israel, Native American drummers from Arizona, guitarists from Amsterdam and New Orleans.
Mark: “There’s so many problems now with the economy and with war and a lot of depression. In order to really unite people, we have to show that in our darkest situations and in the places with the most struggles in the world, that we can find a way of uplifting each other out of it. In a world with all this division, it’s important for us to focus on our connections. And music is the one thing that opens the door to bringing people to a place where they are all connected.”
Mark’s Playing for Change foundation began building schools in underdeveloped communities so that young children could be inspired by learning to play music and connecting to other musicians through the internet. The first was the Ntonga Music School in the Guguletu township near Capetown, South Africa, where several musicians from the film/CD were from. (You can watch the school being built through the website: www.playingforchange.com.)
My friend’s friend’s daughter, Amelia Romano, is a harpist and was planning to spend the spring semester of her junior year in college studying at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. As soon she saw the Bill Moyers interview her mother had forwarded her, she immediately e-mailed Mark Johnson and asked to work in the new Ntonga Music School. Mark e-mailed back “Great!” with the names of the local musicians involved in the school. When Bill Moyers re-broadcast the Playing for Change interview last December, so many people “hit” Mark’s website it crashed the system. Amelia never heard from Mark again through the internet. But she did raise $500 for the school in her farewell concert at U.C. Berkeley before she left for South Africa.
After settling in Capetown, Amelia found her way on her own to the Guguletu township hit hard by HIV and poverty. She stopped to ask a local person for Pokei Klaas, the upright bassist from the township featured in the film. The man she was asking was Pokei. Amelia is now teaching students in the school (still under construction) and playing regularly with the local musicians. People so loved her traveling harp that she decided to use the $500 she had raised for the school, her “teacher’s discount” and the internet to order two more harps to be manufactured in Indiana and shipped to her in Capetown.
Last month, Amelia learned from Mark’s restored website that he had re-gathered many of the musicians from the film for a world tour to raise money to build schools in Ghana, Mali, India, etc. Amelia e-mailed her parents asking them to go on her behalf to the performance in San Francisco three weeks ago. They did and met Mark at the break, photos of Amelia, the local musicians, and the school in hand. When Darla mentioned the harps being made for the school, Mark said without skipping a beat, “Oh! We’ll pay for the shipping.” As of the writing of this newsletter, the harps are now ready; they are being shipped to Mark in Los Angeles. Two musicians from the tour will deliver them in person to Amelia at the Ntonga Music and Arts School when they return there in two weeks.
The community building through progressive activists like Mark and inspired young musicians like Amelia will continue to unfold and inspire, “stand by me” becoming a universal motto. People wishing to follow up more directly can contact Amelia directly through June: email@example.com.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
THE SECURITY GENERATED BY CONNECTION AND COMMUNITY
Please don’t underestimate the power of oxytocin – our brain’s neuropeptide of bonding and trust – to override a runaway stress reaction and restore an inner sense of ease and well-being.
Stephen Johnson tells a wonderful story about oxytocin in his book Mind Wide Open. He and his wife were living in downtown Manhattan before, during and after September 11, 2001. His wife had given birth to their son just two days before 9/11. Stephen could see debris and ash floating past the window of their apartment that morning. He was pacing the floor, half-crazed with anxiety, while his wife was calmly nursing their son in the rocking chair, completely oblivious to the chaos around her and her newborn. Oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding, generating an oceanic feeling of devotion between the mother and the newborn, and a blissful, other-worldly sense of contentment, “everything is all right.” Stephen’s wife was protected from the kind of anxiety Stephen was experiencing by the oxytocin coursing through her system and calming her down entirely.
We can cultivate the release of oxytocin in our brains through a simple one-minute exercise. I’ve offered it here before; I’m offering it again because it works.
The very first time I used this technique other than as a practice exercise, I had had a startle about something in my bank account that could have gone down the rabbit hole of shame so fast. And I thought, I’ll do the technique! So I did. The felt sensation of the upset, literally the cortisol running through my system, subsided by the end of that minute and I was just fine and able to deal.
Begin by placing your hand on your heart. Even the warmth of your hand touching your heart center will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and start to calm you down.
Then take three deep breaths into your heart area, breathing in well-being or trust or safety or love or joy, breathing that experience into your heart and feel it in your heart.
Then remember a moment when you felt truly happy and safe, held in love and acceptance by someone, by any True Other to your True Self. This could be a small moment with a beloved or a pet or a child or a benefactor. Feel the felt sense of feeling loved, feeling safe, and let that sink in for the next 45 seconds.
Practice using this technique in times of ease and everything is all right and it will be there for you when you’re on the brink of a freak out. It will.
Gathering in Community
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.”
The power of people coming together to renew their faith in whatever they hold to be ultimate wisdom, ultimate refuge, is not confined to any particular religious faith or spiritual tradition. When we honor the light within each other, we are re-fueled and re-Sourced. We can better face any disappointment, any darkness, any devastation.
Years ago I invited friends over for a pot-luck dinner and at the last-minute suggested they bring poetry to share. The Gourmet Poets Society has been meeting for 8 ½ years now. We share a meal; we share poetry; we share tears when there’s grief; we share belly-laughs when there’s joy. By the time we part company at the end of an inspiring evening, we know that we are held in a community of compassion and care. That is a great peace as we return to the particular challenges of our lives.
Some time in the next month, invite people over for a gathering. People with whom you can share what’s really going on. True Others to your True Self. There may be an excuse like sharing poetry or sharing a meal. The deeper purpose is to remember who we truly are and who we are willing to be for each other. To be nourished and sustained by a communion deeper than our ordinary days.
Service that Creates Community
The internet is such a fabulous resource for “thinking globally, acting locally.” Opportunities to volunteer abound. Two of my favorites, because they build community as well as build homes or fund cancer research, are:
Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity partner with families around the globe to build affordable homes with donated materials and a lot of sweat equity. 300,000 homes to date sheltering 1.5 million people.
Team in Training is the world largest charity sports training program. 380,000 participants over 20 years; $71 million invested in cancer research in 2008 alone. TNT does far more than sponsor marathons and triathalons to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Volunteers participate in team-building trainings, clinics, and coachings. People build community as well as muscles and endurance.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson, by Mitch Albom, Random House, 2002.
The heartwarming account of the author’s re-connection with his former mentor as Morrie Schwartz is dying of ALS. Mitch and Morrie talk at length about life, death, love, the meaning of it all, until Morrie dies, full of grace and gratitude to the end. One of the most memorable lines as Morrie speaks of leaving his beloved wife behind, “Death ends a life; it doesn’t end the relationship.”
This website is dedicated to broadcasting and publishing the good news of people helping other people all around the world. A healthy antidote to the atmosphere of fear and catastrophe in the regular media. Top ten stories delivered by e-mail every week if you choose.
This is the link to the Playing for Change interview on Bill Moyers Journal, with access to videos and transcripts of all of Bill Moyers Journals on PBS. Bill Moyers Journal is simply one of the most provocative, insightful, illuminating shows available on television; a wealth of information and insight with a deep recognition, whatever is going on, we are all in this together.