“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”  Richard Feynman

We fool ourselves that something is right for all sorts of reasons – because it is comfortable to do so, because we’ve been conditioned to do so, because others think so, because it is fashionable to do so.’  Jeaneane Fowler

Although there are a couple of days to go before summer ends, the fig tree outside the bathroom window has already signaled the end of summer and the arrival of autumn. Fig leaves are always the first to change colour in my garden. They turn bright yellow at first, but soon dark ocher and light brown crisper versions litter the ground. They are the first to fall long before other deciduous trees shed their foliage. As we go through cycles of life and seasons end things re-emerge to be remembered, re-felt and re-evaluated, and through this process they too are changed or shed. The end of a season and the passing of time often transform our relationship with and capacity to hold experiences. The arrival of autumn is always registered in my physiology. A pause is often imposed upon me. Returning to the body as a whole during meditation connects me to my embodiment and aliveness.

Resting our attention on the body as a whole and being aware of all the sensations that run through our body at any given moment can create a sense of wholeness. In this week’s newsletter, Just One Thing, Rick Hanson discusses the experience of bodily wholeness, and also, provides steps of going about this kind of practice. He suggests we try paying attention to our breathing and to sensations in our whole body during meditation and while doing everyday activities like walking, housework, sitting, and so on.  He writes: “Try to be aware of all the sensations of breathing in the torso, all of them present in consciousness as a unified whole, moment by moment. Let attention widen and soften to receive the whole torso as a single percept….. Next, open to a larger whole: all of the sensations of breathing throughout the body, appearing all together in awareness breath after breath. Then, see if you can go all the way out to include all body sensations, not just those of breathing…… experiencing your body as a whole – as a single, unified gestalt in awareness, with all its sensations appearing together at once – activates networks on the sides of your brain. These lateral networks pull you out of the planning, worrying, obsessing, fantasizing, and self-referential thinking – “me, myself, and I” – that’s driven by another neural network in the middle of the brain. Consequently, abiding as the whole body draws you into the present moment, reduces stress, increases mindfulness….”

Autumn is the season that brings my embodiment to the foreground, as well as, questions asked by humans since antiquity, my own asking and the memory of suppression and oppression.  Questions about our human nature and life ­, and questions like: ‘How can I know what is true?’, ‘How can I live a meaningful life?’, ‘How should I treat others?’’, ‘What is my place in this world?’, ‘What kind of world do I want?’, ‘What responsibilities do individual capabilities bring?, ‘How do our beliefs support us and others in creating fulfilling lives and which beliefs foster more equality and freedom for all?’ We start asking questions early on, but often our curiosity and explorative nature is boxed or crushed by more or less stifling sociocultural contexts. Many diverse religious and non-religious worldviews have attempted to provide answers to questions like these and all of us in our own quiet hours have also probably tried to make some sense out of this business of living on this tiny planet in an infinite universe. We have probably all marveled and even felt a bit intimidated by the fact that we are part of something unimaginably enormous. The visible universe alone contains over 100 billion galaxies, which is humbling, and also, diminishes the argument that it was built for human beings.

Embodiment and mental activities like questioning and thinking are parts of the same whole. Our personalities are located in, and dependent on, our physical brains and our mental life is inevitably dependent on our brains and bodies. Our conscious experiences are accommodated within the physical world. Most of us accept the scientific findings that mental properties are dependent on brain activity, for without it, all signs of conscious life are absent. As Hugh Mellor, writes ‘… not only the nature but the very existence of our conscious experiences depends on our having bodies. All the evidence of our own and other people’s lives overwhelmingly implies this… I see nothing… which shows that mental properties… can be possessed by anything which does not have a body.’ On a similar note Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based….”

As I’ve lately been reading texts about how a humanist perspective  might answer questions like the ones mentioned above I thought I might include an extract from a passage from the Humanist Association of Ireland in this post:

“We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be able to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed healthcare and to die with dignity. We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility…… We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species….. We attempt to transcend any divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity. We believe in individual happiness; in developing our creative talents to their fullest, and in the realisation of the best that we are capable of as human beings. We are deeply concerned with the moral education of children. We want to nourish reason and compassion. We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences. We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, but we are open to new ideas and seek new departures in our thinking….”

Seeking new departures in our thinking as a result of new experiences, observation and learning might be uncomfortable, but essential, if we want to know more about our personal and collective reality and transcend divisive loyalties. Also, recognising that there is a possibility of our beliefs being mistaken involves being able to employ skepticism when necessary. Reasonable doses of skepticism allow us to accept that we are all prone to biases and error, particularly, when it comes to answering the bigger questions. It encourages us to subject beliefs to critical scrutiny and allows us to question authority and prescribed ways of living or believing, and urges us to learn more. Also, beliefs are often time bound, politically informed, contain biases, and serve economic interests and agendas. So, being somewhat skeptical is as important as being courageous enough to embrace some uncertainty and the fact that as a species we may never know it all. The human brain, thus far and in many years to come, may simply not evolve to that point where it can  answer questions like ‘How did this ultimately all begin?’ with absolute certainty.

From this place of awareness of our limitations and fallibility we are perhaps less invested in bullying and persecuting people that hold different beliefs form our own. Instead we could work towards creating a good life to the best of our ability, while fostering others’ intentions to do so as well, knowing beyond doubt that as a species we universally don’t desire hunger and poverty. We all want a warm bed and a roof over our head and the possibility to educate our children and provide for them. We don’t want to experience violence, war and strife or prejudice. We want joy and love and supportive circumstances to aspire and to thrive. We want to feel safe and free to think and express our ideas.  So, what if instead of killing each other over our diverse belief systems often prone to revision and error, we built bridges among us based on the things we know for certain.

Summer activities

It’s you I like  /  It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair   /   But it’s you I like
The way you are right now  /   The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you   /   Not your toys   /   They’re just beside you                                                     But it’s you I like   /  Every part of you
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings   /  Whether old or new
I hope that you’ll remember    /   Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like  /  It’s you yourself  /  It’s you
It’s you I like         (Written by Fred Rogers, 1971)

Over this last week I’ve been painting the portrait I am posting today, listening to a lifelong deep urge to do art for the sake of simply doing it, and also, for the healing of my body and psyche. In some sense it is a meditative practice and every brush stroke brings me back home to me. In Pictures of a Childhood Alice Miller explored the connection between childhood and that creative activity, which ‘somehow permits us to give form to the chaos within and thereby master our anxiety’. She also traced trauma in creativity and wrote about the roots of creativity in the authentic self’s struggle for survival. I have also been to the open summer cinema this week to watch “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and directed by Marielle Heller. Watching a film on a big screen in an open space with sprawling bougainvillea vines under the stars is always a treat for me.

The story is based on a 1998 magazine profile of both the off camera Fred Rogers and his television persona by Tom Junod; however, it’s not a biopic, even though it refers to Mr Rogers’ work in children’s television. It is primarily a story about the friendship that develops between Mister Rogers and Lloyd Vogel, the jaded journalist, who is assigned to profile this television icon and tries to break through what he considers to be a veneer of decency and kindness in order to find the true person behind it. However, the encounter proves transformative for him as he is compassionately guided in letting go of unmetabolized hurt and resentment and in becoming more emotionally responsive and a more involved father. We watch the character development and growth of Lloyd as the film unrolls.

The story aside, one could say it is a film about kindness, integrity, friendship, compassion, the art of listening to others, creating a sense of possibility and transformation, emotional intelligence and teaching children (and adults) the importance of recognizing, feeling, discussing and dealing with emotions in empowered ways, Mister Rogers encourages children (and adults) to talk and think about their feelings, and he de-stigmatizes the way we express or discuss painful emotions by normalizing the fact that there is suffering and pain in life and it is okay to talk about it because anything that can be talked about can be managed. He suggests ways of consciously practising kindness and calm and dealing with emotions, such as, pain, anger, loneliness, frustration, and death, in non destructive ways like pounding a lump of clay, doing a physical activity like running or racing, going swimming, thumping on the low notes of a piano.

Mr Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, seems to have a gift of sensing other people’s distress or unhappiness, but he moves beyond sensing and feeling to compassionate action. He uses practices and interventions to help others. He believes that when adults are able to remember their own childhoods they are better able to hold space for their children’s and others’ emotional reality, and also, manage their own emotions because through being in touch with our past and present emotional experience we can stay connected to our empathy and vulnerability, which foster maturation and more compassionate and intelligent relational interactions.

In order to survive his painful childhood and move on in life, Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. has closed off certain painful emotions and has become cynical, but through compassionate involvement and thoughtful questions, Mister Rogers creates a safe relational container for his friend to move through and beyond the walls of hurt and to evolve to a less defended and more forgiving and responsive human.  At some point he says: ‘Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.’ He introduces Lloyd to the puppets he uses in the show and asks him to remember the first toy animal he had as a child, Old Rabbit, as a means to breaking barriers of numbness and cynicism and getting him to reconnect to his inner child or younger aspects of self who are burdened with emotions and pain. His puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, is an evocation of Mister Roger’s childhood feelings of insecurity. Mr. Rogers mentions in the film that he was bullied and picked on as a chubby kid and was called “fat Freddie”, His puppet King Friday XIII, seems to represent that adult attitude of always getting one’s way, which may not always be the  wise or kind way. Adults may not always have the right answers or solutions and they too make mistakes and they definitely need help. There is a scene in the film where Mr Rogers fails to put up a tent, but rather than shooting another scene he decides that his failure is the important lesson. He explains to Lloyd that “it’s important for children to know that adults’ plans don’t always work out.”

As one watches the film it becomes apparent that Mr. Rogers is not only present, attentive and insightful, but he is also psychologically informed. He uses a kind of probing influenced by the Socratic method perhaps or emotions maieutics, to use a Greek term, to help Lloyd tap into old festering wounds so that he may feel, understand, and finally, be able to let go of pent up rage and grief. Through an empathic confronting of the past and self examination Mr Rogers guides Lloyd to reconciliation with his father and the past and greater emotional maturation. Another important value and experience that Mr Rogers encourages is acceptance of everyone’s inherent worth and non negotiable value. He wants children to know that they are loved no matter what and that they are loved for who they are deep inside. His intention and hope is for adults to ‘appreciate children for what they are, not for what they will be’, and that in order to relate to their children, adults should recall their own childhoods.

He also encourages people to experience themselves in the small silences between busyness and activity. There’s a restaurant scene in which Mr Rogers asks Lloyd to do a one minute practice with him, which involves remaining silent and reflecting on all the people who “loved him into being” or made him who he is; this might include the people who have hurt us. Research has shown that human beings have a survival-related negativity bias, which practically means more brain activity and energy are dedicated to registering and responding to negative experiences and anticipating what might go wrong than to the positive in our lives. And this is too often reinforced by an outer world, which constantly reminds us of the ways that we come up short, or all the reasons to feel threatened. Research has also found that having felt experiences of being loved and supported influences our physical and psychological well-being in a positive manner. So, by directing our attention to those who have loved and  / or supported us we build up resilience and inner resources.  By taking in the good and savoring it, as Rick Hanson, says, we build up the neural circuitry of resilience and goodness drop by drop.

The basement of the mind: suffering sinks deep (Edited)

In his book, Neurodharma, Rick Hanson writes that to understand suffering it is important to know that it is often buried deep down, embedded in younger layers of the psyche. He describes how as children we are vulnerable, especially, during the first years of our life, because the primary neural trigger for experiences of stress and fear, our amygdala, is formed before we are born, and also, because our hippocampus, which calms down the amygdala doesn’t become completely developed until around the third birthday. This part of the brain also helps us form episodic memories and its slow maturation is why we don’t remember our earliest years. Also, the right hemisphere of our brain, which tends to emphasize the perception of threats, painful emotions and behaviors such as withdrawing or freezing, develops first during the first eighteen months. As young children we all need soothing, comfort, and care from caregivers; however, many people have received less than good enough care during these early years when the nervous system is especially vulnerable and while the foundational layers of the psyche are being laid down. These early feelings, sensations, and experiences get internalized into implicit memory stores disconnected from explicit recollections of the situations in which they occurred. All this buried material lives on and can be reactivated by the type of cues that were also present back then. A similar process can occur during traumatic experiences in later years, during adolescence and in adulthood. Rick Hanson writes: “The painful residues of events can get caught in the nets of emotional memory, but without context and perspective. The conscious mind may forget, but as Babette Rothschild wrote, the body remembers.”

In The Body Never Lies Alice Miller investigates the long tern consequences of adversity in childhood on the adult body, and in The Truth Will Set You Free, she writes that our bodies retain memories of pain or humiliation, causing a panoply of physical ills and dangerous levels of denial. In her book, Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy, Pat Ogden also writes that a cascade of strong emotions and physical sensations, triggered by reminders of the trauma, replays endlessly in the body and that “trauma has profound effects on the body and nervous system and that many symptoms of traumatized individuals are somatically driven” (Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 1999; Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, Steele, & Brown, 2004; van der Kolk, 1994; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). In his book, Brief: Reflections on Childhood, Trauma and Society, Bruce Perry also mentions that “we now know that these adverse and traumatic experiences change us in all ways – our bodies and minds, our hearts and souls are seared and then twist and change to help us survive.” According to Stephen Porges not only does the body remember a traumatic experience, but it can get stuck in the trauma response mode, and so even when the threat is gone, the body still perceives danger and its defenses stay engaged. In this short video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAqiiOy4IyQ, he briefly touches on this. In a longer podcast at: https://www.rickhanson.net/being-well-podcast-polyvagal-theory-with-stephen-porges/ he expands more on how our neurobiology has evolved to respond to trauma and he summarizes his polyvagal theory.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, postulates that “If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal / muscular problems, and if mind / brain / visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.” He goes on to explain how the body keeps the score, at even the deepest levels of the organism. He discusses how recent research has swept away the idea that a particular gene produces a particular result. It turns out that many genes work together to influence a single outcome, and also, that genes are not fixed and life events can trigger biochemical messages that turn them on or off by attaching a cluster of carbon and hydrogen atoms to the outside of the gene and this sensitizes it to messages from the body…… This process is called methylation. He writes: “Methylation patterns, however, can be passed on to offspring— a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Once again, the body keeps the score, at the deepest levels of the organism.”

Rick Hanson says that aspects of old experiences are embedded in physical memory systems designed to hold on to their contents and that healing and releasing pent up energy and old stories and beliefs necessitates skillful tools and modalities alongside mindfulness and self-compassion practices. He mentions that “There are good methods for bringing light down into the basement of the mind, and if we are to understand suffering fully, it is all right to use them.” One method he suggests in his book, which we can explore on our own if the material is not overwhelming to us, is linking positive experiences to negative material so as to soothe and / or replace it. The negative material can be emotions, sensations, thoughts, images and memories and it can come both from what’s been missing and from what’s been wounding for “the absence of the good can hurt as much as the presence of the bad.” (Rick Hanson) .

With linking, we are not asked to deny or resist the material, but to accept it as it is while also bringing comfort, perspective, encouragement, and other forms of support to the pain and to ourself. He writes that “In the brain, the positive will tend to associate with the negative, and those associations will go with the negative material when it gets stored back into memory networks. In fact, for at least an hour after the negative material leaves awareness, there is a window of reconsolidation during which it is neurologically unstable. In this window, you may be able to disrupt the “rewiring” of the negative into your brain by refocusing occasionally on only the positive material. Each time you use linking might take just a dozen seconds, but with repetition you can gradually replace weeds with flowers in the garden of your mind.”