The Importance Of “Embodied Vulnerability”

Golden Buddha_5Erin Olivio is a clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.  In her work with addicts recovering from multiple addictions, Dr. Olivio finds that she must first find a way to help these people regain a sense of basic self worth.  She begins this process by asking these newly sober patients to identify the character traits they most value in others.  Typical answers to this question might be:  “I value honesty, loyalty, authenticity, the capacity to love”.  Then, Dr. Olivio asks her patients which qualities they most value in themselves.  Now the answers are different.  Most typically, they are things like “I have a good education, I can work hard”.  Dr. Olivio was struck by the fact that people tend to judge themselves more readily by the things they have “done” (the externals), whereas they judge others by the things they “are” (the internals). As a starting point of conversation, Dr. Olivio points out this key difference to her patients.  What she finds is that people, in general, have difficulty identifying their own positive “inner” character traits. When pressed, people are more apt to point out character flaws and/or the ways they have let people down.

Buddhist psychologist Bruce Tift of Naropa University has also noticed this “disconnect” between the way we see ourselves and the way we see others.  In the Buddhist way of thinking, this “self negativity” bias is a cause of great unnecessary suffering for us human beings.  Dr. Tift believes that we are often “divided” against ourselves…believing, as we do, that we have a “good” self and a “bad” self and these “selves” are at war with one another.  At a level that is either conscious or unconscious, this “inner war” becomes a huge source of anxiety, physical discomfort, and depression.  Buddhist thought would argue that the “divided self” is an illusion, or as Dr. Tift terms it a  “hallucination”.  True inner peace and happiness can only occur if we feel “whole”.

So, where did the “divided self” originate, and more importantly, how can we be restored to “wholeness”.  Dr. Tift sees the origins of the “divided self” in childhood. In the relatively long period of childhood each child needs to ensure physical and psychological survival by becoming the child the parent needs him to be.  This is when the unacceptable parts of ourselves, (read “anger” and “aggression”) are pushed into the unconscious…but probably only temporarily.  As we all know, eventually all of our parts will make themselves known..either by “anger” outbursts, or through their conversion into anxiety or physical illness.  The important thing is that, as children, we become very aware of “bad behavior” and our capacity to engage in it. This is the beginning of the “divided” self, that can perpetuate into adulthood and go on forever, if not somehow addressed.

So, how can a “divided” self become whole again.? Bruce Tift believes the answer to this begins with looking deeply into our neurological system, where we have created a neurological pathway that identifies our own “negative” emotions as “dangerous” to the survival of the “self”.  In childhood it may have been literally “dangerous” to allow the anger to surface, so, for our very survival our own emotions became a threat….we had to push them down (sometimes not very successfully) A conflict arose each time a feeling tried to assert itself and had to be somehow conquered. Our childhood strategy kept us in “good enough” relationship with caregivers when we were children, but it no longer serves us.  In reality we need all of our emotions to survive in the real world…all the anger, all the aggression…we need to make them all available.  In reality there is no “good” and “bad” per se, just the appropriate use of emotions at the appropriate time. But How can we achieve the appropriate integration?

First of all, its important I think to understand the concept of “neuro plasticity”.  We know now that “neuro pathways” are not “hard wired”.  We can change them.  Here is where the idea of “vulnerability” comes in.

For the sake of argument, lets consider the emotion of anger. In order to really permanently change the neural pathway that identifies anger, as a “danger” to the “self”, it is necessary to identify the original source of the “trauma” that led us to believe we could not safely feel our anger. Imagine for example, that you were told that your anger was “killing” your mother. Your father is telling you this because your mother is particularly fragile. (this is just an example!) As a child, you might literally believe this…that you could “kill” your mother with your feelings.  Imagine the depth of deep terror you would feel …the absolute vulnerability of this moment. ..your survival is at stake! Bruce Tift argues that if you can feel  and remember deeply within your physical body the sheer terror of the moment of your worst vulnerability you can shift the feeling…change the pathway.  Why?   Because you will discover that, contrary to your deepest childhood fear, you can and will survive. You are literally changing a key, but probably unconscious “core” belief about your own survival. Your psyche has new “evidence”, if you will, and this will change the pathway.  It reminds me of what Winston Churchill said about the onslaught of World War 2….”The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”..  Put another way, it’s not the event itself but your “fear” of the event, that causes the problem.  Churchill didn’t know it, but it seems to me he was defining the nature of anxiety.  Go into that fear and ….feel it, know it, “embody” that vulnerability fully… Notice that you are truly OK.  Now you will see that the fear and anxiety will simply “let go”.  There is  no reason for it to hold on to itself.


Heart Centered Living In The Real (default) World..How To Keep The “Burning Man” Burning

Keep Your Own Man Burning photo by Darrell Hunger

Keep Your Own Man Burning
photo by Darrell Hunger

The end of the “Burning Man” event in the Black Rock Desert is signaled by the actual “burning” of the “Man.” Three stories high, when the “man” is burning, it is a sight to behold.  First the “man made of  sticks” is honored by being lit up fully.  Then, there is a grand fireworks display.  Finally, the man is set on fire, and he burns to the ground.  The ritual is important.  It means that “Burning Man”, as the event of that year, is ending.  Sadly, it is now time for everyone to pack up and go home. At “Burning Man”, when the event is over, it is truly and fully “over”.  Participants are told that they must pack up absolutely everything and “leave no trace”… at least no discernable physical trace”. (This is actually one of the 10 principles)  But what of the experience that lives on in the memory of the participants?  As I mentioned in my previous blog, (see previous blog)….people are deeply affected and “changed” internally by participating in Burning Man. Virtually all of the people I talked to came back from “Burning Man” with a new sense of the possibility of connecting with people in a heart centered and authentic way.  Additionally, people seem to feel really good about themselves.  People have a renewed sense of inner “empowerment” after “Burning Man”, as well as the motivation to continue to create “art” in whatever form that art might take..  My question is, how can we, any of us, bring this incredible  Burning  Man “ethos” to bear in the real world…the world that is so much more competitive, materialistic,  and mean spirited and cruel than the “Burning Man” Utopia.  After all, the “real world” is where we have to live, don’t we?….well maybe.  Or…how about if we keep a man burning within each of us throughout the year?  I’ve been thinking about a few ways we might be able to do that.

The first way is pretty obvious.  “Burning Man” organizers are pretty savvy about the intensity of the experience, so there are many “after” parties and opportunities to “decompress” after “Burning Man”.  In addition, many people who attend are repeat attenders, or “burners” as they are called.  In point of fact,  attendance of “Burning Man” has grown over the years, so that it is now attended by 68 thousand people…from virtually all over the world.  This says to me that events such as “Burning Man” are an answer to a discernable, global “spiritual thirst”…that keeps on growing.

So, there is the first answer to keeping that flame burning….go back to “Burning Man”!…attend the related events.!

Another way to “keep the man burning” would be to just take the principles and contemplate them…and consider how it might be possible to “live” these principles all the time. Lets take” Radical self reliance”, for example. How often does each of us think we can’t figure something out…It’s too hard, we may tell ourselves , or….I don’t understand.  I know I often say these things to myself….and then I pause a moment to actually “figure” it out…and it feels really good!  Lately I’ve tried to challenge myself more, and challenge the insidious sterreotype of the helpless female (that I have apparently internalized) Now, how about “radical self expression”?…..I wonder how often we see ourselves as someone who is not “creative”, or not “artistic”.  What kind of bullshit is that? Just checking out pictures and videos of the clothing , art and music of Burning Man, (keep in mind, I’ve never been there)…convinces me of the amazing creativity made possible by the unleashed and uninhibited  human mind and spirit.  So how about unleashing your inner artist once in while?

The principle of “radical inclusion” seems to me the most challenging of all.  If I take a good hard look at myself, I can find instances where I have dismissed someone who seemed so different from me that he/she was…what…threatening???.. I’m shamed to say this….but its true.  This is the inner work  that know I’m not alone in having to do.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that the “Burning Man” ethos is not something that need only be brought out only for one week every year.  It is possible to begin to incorporate these ideas into our everyday life…if we want to.  I’m not saying its easy, because, face it, the “default” world can be kind of cool.  I love my high tech communication gadgets, my TV, my “safe” friends and family…all the stuff that I know and can reliably depend on.

But I also know, its not enough.  Its not enough, for me at least, to stay inside the cocoon of my familiar world.  I want more.  I want to expand and  to dare to know myself at a deeper level.  I want to try and understand and embrace people that seem “strange”. I want to explore my “outer edges” in a harsh and challenging environment.  My intention is to attend Burning Man next year, and in the meantime…take some time to contemplate and live the principles every day.





Radical “Self Reliance”, “Self Expression”, And “Inclusion”….The Surprising Gateway To Heart Centered Human Connection

"Burning Man" prior to the "Burn"...August 31st 2013 photo by Darrell Hunger

“Burning Man” prior to the “Burn”…August 31st 2013
photo by Darrell Hunger

The organizers of “Burning Man” start disseminating information about the weeklong event to all ticket holders long before the event itself. Contrary to a commonly held belief, “Burning Man” is not a chaotic, anarchistic group of crazy artists, musicians, and ex “hippies” getting together to hang out and smoke dope in the desert.  Oh no…  This year two members of my family attended the event and I learned just a little bit about the true meaning of “Burning Man”. I’m going next year.

    To understand how the community of Burning Manoperates, the best place to turn is to the Burning  Man Survival Guide, …part of the literature the ticket holders get when they attend the event.  To quote directly from the guide “Our community’s ethos is built on the values reflected in the 10 principles.  “Burning Man” is understood not as an event, but as referring to a way of life lived consistently with these 10 principles.  They are meant to be taken as a whole, as a set of commonly understood values that have arisen out of the history of the Burning Man experience”.

WOW….this is so cool!…says the anthropologist in me.  Burning Man, in the (roughly) 25 years of its existence, has actually evolved a coherent culture that re-creates itself year after year.  The culture is based on very specific principles!  Going through each principle in detail here would take too much time, but I am going to focus on the principles of  “Radical Self Reliance”, “Radical Self Expression”, and “Radical Inclusion”. I am focusing here because of the expression of pure bliss I witnessed in my husbands face when he returned from Burning Man, and his comment that he felt “bathed in oxytocin” (the “love molecule) the whole time he was attending Burning man. It just seemed to me that these manefestations must have something to do with his immersion in the “ethos” of Burning Man. On further reflection I reasoned that, to have such a feeling of “well being” and “contentment” when sharing a harsh environment  with so many others must have directly to do with following principles about how to relate to yourself, and to others. So, I’ve been thinking about it and here is a theory I have developed.

First of all, regarding the principle of “radical self reliance”..the survival guide states that “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her own inner resources.” So, I see this as an emphasis on self empowerment. You, on your own, are enough.  You can take care of yourself.  You are whole. If you combine this with the principle of radical self expression”…which states that you as an individual are encouraged to share all of “who you are” (for example by the way you dress, your art, your “expression”.. all “parts” of yourself, if you will)…then you are allowing your true self to be seen….all of you.  Ergo…all of you is powerfull….it’s all good!  The third principle of “radical inclusion” seals the other two together, in my mind. To quote from the “Survival guide, again, with the principle of radical Inclusion… ,”anyone can be a part of Burning Man”…no prerequisites exist for participation…. It seems to me that this is the principle of automatic and unconditional “positive regard”. You are accepted for who you are and what you bring, with no hierarchies.  Everyone is equal.

So, now thinking about the feeling of “love” that seems to flow between “Burning Man” participants (maybe not all the time…there is a “law enforcement” presence of sorts), I’m thinking that the human connection people discover there must come truly and fully from the “heart”.  Given that each participant is encouraged to feel “whole” “self sufficient”  and empowered” for who they truly are, the reason to “connect” is not about really “needing” anyone…it is about “wanting” connection, pure and simple. Of course, you can help someone who needs it, (and this is encouraged)  but its different than that desperate need people can sometimes feel to find someone to “complete” them.  You are already complete.  Related to this, there is no money exchange at “Burning Man”, except in the instance of two locations where you can buy ice and coffee. Other than this,….”Burning Man is devoted to acts of “gift giving”.  The value of a gift is unconditional.  “Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value”  (again, this is another principle from the Survival Guide)

So, these are my thoughts.  I have never been a part of such an “experiment” in community as this.  It’s a chance to connect with people in such a real and immediate way…..(By the way, cell phones, laptops, and tablets don’t work at Burning Man.. Its all BE HERE NOW. ) When my husband Darrell came home, he was totally disoriented and needed to take a couple of days just to adjust to the “default” world. (another Burning Man expression) He couldn’t stop talking about his experience and the wonderful time he had with everyone there, including our adult daughter Simone .  How can I not want to go?


Step One In Building Healthy Relationships…Begin with the Person In Your Mirror

Say Hello To YourselfSixty two year old poet and philosopher Mark Nepo observed recently that his life purpose has changed over the years.  In his “youth”, Mark observed, he was driven by the need to become his own unique self as he pushed himself forward to carve out a niche in the competitive world of writing.  Then, in midlife, Mark had a serious bout with cancer and everything changed.  He describes this time as an experience of “breaking open” completely.  Suddenly success, individualism, and forward momentum, were simply not important.  Now, a handful of years after the beginning of his cancer journey, Mark is focusing his energy on building and deepening relationships.  Even the creative process of poetry writing has taken a back seat to this, as Mark strives to find all the ways in which he is in unity with others, rather than “set apart”.

Mark Nepo’s observations strike a deep chord with me, for several reasons.  First of all, I’m 63, and have recently had a “break open” experience of my own.  In my view, he is exactly right.  When these experiences happen, the only thing that makes them bearable is connecting with others in a meaningful way.  Secondly, professionally I’m interested in helping people who have experienced “relationship failure” to learn how to find and keep relationships…romantic or not.  So, how does one get stared with this task?  More importantly, how does a person get started if they are coming from a place of deep loneliness, fear, and anger after profound disappointment and betrayal?  Mark Nepo offers some ideas on this that I believe are worth looking at.

The first idea that really resonated with me is Mr. Nepos assertion that true loneliness is not something we feel, necessarily, when we are physically alone.  The deepest loneliness is rather an inner loneliness that occurs when we are a “stranger” to ourselves.  How do we become a “stranger” to ourselves? Mark Nepo suggests that it happens when we “react” to our emotional and/or physical pain by retreating into ourselves. Alternatively, we many anesthetize ourselves with drugs and alcohol.  To the outside world, we may appear aloof and uncaring.  Or, maybe we have a great “party” persona that is “laughing on the outside while crying on the inside”. We are, in these instances, essentially “hiding”…. both from ourselves and from others.

Mark Nepo believes that the only way out of this profoundly lonely place is to allow ourselves to feel all of our pain “all the way through”.  We actually have to invite every sensation, every thought, every emotion, every everything to come to our table. All are welcome.  None are denied entrance. Mindfulness meditation is one way to begin to identify and accept everything by noticing the way it all “lands” in our body.  Journaling can also help with building awareness and learning to tolerate all of who we are.

The goal of all of this “self” reflection is to literally; finally, and fully see “the man (or woman) in the mirror”(that is ourselves) So…Ok…but how does this help us not be lonely, and build a healthy relationship?

The idea is that when we allow ourselves to fully feel emotional pain, we are connecting deeply with the vast “river” of anyone and everyone who has ever suffered.  We are connecting with the human family, essentially, and we are laying the foundation for the empathy and compassion that will lead us into our deepest friendships and most committed relationships. This makes sense, when you think about it.  It becomes clear to you when you allow a full experience of emotional pain, that everyone else is just like you. In your “awakened” state you will now see everyone fully, from the “reference point” of yourself.  Now your heart is open and you are available to let someone in.  It starts with you…not anyone else…because your openheartedness radiates outward in a welcoming gesture that attracts people to you.  It has to…there is no other way.

Just remember..spend some time looking in that mirror first!