A few things that I have found interesting this week

A. A passage on belonging by poet David Whyte

‘To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories.

It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world or to society — that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world — to say exactly how you don’t belong — and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be. You’re already on your way home.

B. The black box of our lives

This week I watched an interesting film, Τέλειοι Ξένοι, directed by Thodoris Atherides on YouTube. It is a remake of the Italian dramedy Perfect Strangers by Paolo Genovese. It’s about a dinner party that goes terribly wrong. During the meal on the night of a moon eclipse seven friends gather to watch the astronomical phenomenon, eat and drink. Under the social pressure they all decide to play a game with their phones. They place them on the table and agree to make all their texts and phone calls public. As skeletons start to come out of closets and as insecurities and secrets start leaking out there seems to be no place to hide or run. Each secret is piled on top of each other threatening to unravel the fabric of their relationships and the evening. Meanwhile, unacknowledged biases, sexism, repressed emotions and snark lurk in every corner. However, with each new revelation an opportunity for more poignant conversations to take place arises.

The film is a commentary on contemporary society and our inability to see the other below appearances. It tackles themes like privacy, deceit and lack of transparency in our communications and relationships and how little we often know the people in our very close circles. It comments on how our phone devices have become the black boxes of our lives. These gadgets are often used in ways not meant for public viewing and they can give someone the keys to our lives: social media accounts, health apps, our daily schedule, e-mails, address book, streaming platforms, very personal or angry text messages and maybe a few secrets.

C. Dan Siegel discusses smart phones and other devices from an interpersonal neurobiology perspective

He writes that ‘the media is filled with concerning comments about the need for curbing how much time is spent interacting with smart phones, tablets, and computers. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen a young parent text for blocks with their infant in their arms or been in an elevator full of people who, instead of engaging in the informal conversations that connect us to each other in community, are each on their gadgets, typing furiously away. One thing that emerges from the scientific framework of interpersonal neurobiology that I work in as a psychiatrist and educator is that our self, our mind, is not only a product of our body and its nervous system, including the brain, but it is also a relational process. What this means is that we are not only shaped by what our brain does, but we are created by our relationships. Relationships can be defined by how we share information with one another.

One of the experiences that may arise from texting, for example, is a sense of connection with others, a sense of being seen, and even a sense of defining who we are. We are certainly shaped by our relationships—even through our social media accounts—giving us a sense of not being alone in the world. And even more to the point, these communications reveal how our sense of identity can be created by our connections……………. I have found both with friends and with patients, that the inner mental life becomes lost amidst a bombardment of external information. The Internet can contribute to this surface attention as it often distracts us from going deeper with each other in real time, focusing instead on one-way visual and auditory inputs that have a sense of being never-ending. If we’re not careful, these kinds of surface streams of stimuli can give us a sense of never being done, never being complete, never having accomplished something that is finished……

When our kids were younger, my wife and I decided to try to walk the talk by engaging in what I call reflective dialogues, conversations that focus on the inner nature of our mental lives. This means in our conversations we SIFT our experience by exploring four things that are the life of the mind beneath behavior: Sensations; Images; Feelings; Thoughts.

Dan Siegel suggests:  1. Engage your own “mindsight” circuits. When we SIFT the mind, we engage the “mindsight” circuits that support how we have insight into our own inner lives, and empathy for the inner experience of others. Mindsight is something that can give us a deeper sense of knowing others, and of knowing ourselves…….

2.Turn off the gadget and turn toward each other.  When we engage with others in reflective dialogues, including with friends and family, we are making time to explore the inner life of each person………. That’s a conversation between two people, an interactive experience that goes beneath the surface to illuminate the inner life of the mind.

3.Focus on reflective dialogues with those around you.  What we focus our attention on shapes the brain. Science would support the view that if we can have more reflective dialogues that engage our mindsight circuitry, we’ll have a deeper sense of who we are. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have developed an inner sense of clarity that will make it more likely we won’t be so desperate to respond to that phone call or that text while barreling down the road. That would be a great change for everyone.’ (From https://www.drdansiegel.com/blog/2014/01/10/3-steps-to-disconnecting-from-our-phones-and-reconnecting-with-our-teens/)

We all inherently belong here because we are an inextricable part of any here or any there.

‘We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world’  (Marcel Proust, cited in a Stephen Batchelor)

As I have mentioned I sometimes listen to talks and presentations when I am drawing. Once I have ‘set up’ my drawing  I seem to be able to focus on both activities. If I do miss something it doesn’t really matter and I can always rewind. These two drawings today were created with talks by Brene Brown PhD, in the background, which eventually led me to download her book Braving the Wilderness on my Kindle device. The title felt like home to me. I was also intrigued because if my memory is serving me well, I don’t think I have ever used brave as a verb or gerund. So, the title grabbed my attention. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is basically about belonging, which does not require we change who we are, but instead to be who we are. It is about authenticity and courage and not about shrinking or changing ourselves to fit in. Brene Brown discusses what it means to truly belong using the results of her qualitative research findings and her own experiences. She suggests that true belonging asks of us to belong to ourselves and to be able to find sacredness both in being part of a community and standing alone and it is a practice that requires courage, integrity and authenticity. To find our way back home to ourselves we need to walk through or rather brave the wilderness. She writes: “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Brene Brown also uses BRAVING as an acronym for defining and developing trust filled relationships in all contexts. She has often talked about trust as a marble jar. We talk about hard things and we share our soul stories to people who have over time gained their trust marbles and have proved trustworthy. In a nutshell, B stands for boundaries. R stands for reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you’re going to do and you do what you say you’re going to do over and over and over again. A is for accountability, which involves owning mistakes and apologizing or making amends. V is for vault, which means that we acknowledge confidentiality and you will hold in confidence what I share with you and I will do the same with what you share with me. She also uses an interesting term common enemy intimacy because intimacy is built on hating the same person or people, but that’s not real trust. Common enemy type intimacy supports divisiveness  both at a familial, circle of friends or work level and at a large societal level.  I is for integrity, which she defines as choosing courage over comfort, choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy, and practicing our values, N stands for non-judgment, which means that I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. Likewise you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me. So, when there is real trust help is reciprocal and non-judgmental. Finally, G is for generosity and this is about first making a generous assumption about others’ words, intentions, behaviours and then checking it out before assuming the worst

A little more on compassion

As my attention has been on compassion recently I remembered that Rick Hanson’s book Resilient (2018) discusses compassion since it is linked to well-being and resilience. In his book AWARE, 2018,  Dan Siegel also mentions that ‘… focused attention, open awareness, and the training of compassion, or what we are calling kind intention are three of the core ingredients of how we create well-being and happiness in our lives’. Skimming through the chapters of Resilient I chose a few short extracts relevant to compassion to accompany my  drawing today.

‘My own path of well-being began with compassion, as it does for most people. Compassion for yourself is fundamental, since if you don’t care how you feel and want to dosomething about it, it’s hard to make an effort to become happier and more resilient. Compassion is both soft and muscular. For example, studies show that when people feel compassion, motor planning areas in the brain begin preparing for action. Compassion is a psychological resource, an inner strength…….’

‘Compassion for yourself is where you startwhen things are tough, not where you stop. Research by Kristin Neff and others has shown that self-compassion makes a person more resilient, more able to bounce back. It lowers self-criticism and builds up self-worth, helping you to be more ambitious and successful, not complacent and lazy. In compassion for your own pain is a sense of common humanity: we all suffer, we all face disease and death, we all lose others we love. Everyone is fragile…’

‘The key to growing any psychological resource, including compassion, is to have repeated experiences of it that get turned into lasting changes in neural structure or function. It’s like recording a song on an old-fashioned tape recorder: as the song plays— as you experience the resource— you can help it leave a physical trace behind in your nervous system…….’

‘……the neocortex, which started expanding with the first primates about 50 million years ago; it has tripled in volume since early hominids began manufacturing tools 2.5 million years ago. The neocortex has enabled humans to be the most social species on the planet. It is the neural basis of empathy, language, cooperative planning, and compassion— sophisticated ways to meet our needs for connection….’