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Journey-Making

As I struggled to stay up until 9:00 last night (thanks, jet lag), I caught an episode of a new series on PBS, Sacred Journeys. This episode was about Jerusalem, highlighting the choices of several very diverse American citizens who had gone there to find…something.

One of the statements made by the narrator that struck me as fascinating was about the “physicality of place”. His general point was that, even with all of our high-tech video and audio devices, there is no substitute for being present in a location to evoke the psyche. The whole series is about the topic of pilgrimage, a concept that isn’t yet dead, or even resting. Several religious traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, require their followers to make a physical journey to sacred sites in order to fully grasp the messages they offer. Many of the people on the show were Jewish or Christian and were visiting Jerusalem in search of physical pieces of their faith traditions. However, such journeys are also popular among the un-churched masses, today’s “spiritual but not religious” group. This trend seems to point to an unmet need basic to humans not always adequately answered by Religion.

But, why in this time of easy (ish) travel and easy access to information from all over the planet, do people still find it so necessary to pack up a bag and hit the road to find their souls? Certainly, a thousand years ago, when life moved at a much slower paces and there were no video feeds from the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, it made sense for people to journey to sacred places in order to see where important events went down- even if the travel was much more dangerous and difficult than it is today. What is it about “the physicality of place” that still attracts us to the idea of leaving our sofas and stocked fridges and heading out for the unknown?

These questions led to two possible answers, one courtesy of Carl Jung, the other from my Celtic ancestors.

Carl (and Joseph Campbell) liked to make an analogy of a person’s life to the journey of a hero in myths and legends. The idea here is that each person is the hero is his or her own little mythic tale, beginning with The Call and ending with The Return, with many adventures in between. Over the years, this concept has attracted a great deal of attention in the psychotherapy community, from James Hillman and Archetypal therapy, to Michael White and Narrative therapy. Seeing yourself as the hero in your own myth can create feelings of purpose and continuity where chaos existed previously.

The second consideration is related to the image for this essay- the labyrinth. Mazes and labyrinths have been used as tools for prayer and meditation for untold time. Currently, many churches (especially the Episcopal) have prayer gardens with labyrinths on the church grounds. Walking over the four quadrants and into the center (which also is the basic layout of a mandala) is supposed to assist the walker in his or her meditations by making a physical journey to match the cognitive one.

Although many churches have labyrinths, they aren’t exclusive to Christians. The idea is most probably more ancient than that, meaning it likely has pagan roots. Apparently, taking a short, symbolic journey to sort out your thoughts is equally as old and powerful as taking a longer more literal pilgrimage  to a place of some spiritual or historical importance. There seems to be something about the act of walking, making physical contact between the liminal world of ideas and emotions and the literal world of physical sensation, that humans crave at a very basic level.

All of which brings me to my point: no matter how hard Western civilization tries to sanitize and disembody the human experience, it will always be defeated by the basic wiring of the human animal. We, as a species, are not only our thoughts. We are not only our words. When we suffer, we must have motion, physical contact with people and places and all of our senses in order to process the thing that caused the suffering and to heal. No drug can ever replace tactile experience (although some medicines are very helpful to many people). No “talk therapy” alone can fully wrap around the totality of any human experience: for that, we invented art, dance, play, and journeys. We need to use all that we have in order to heal what’s broken and strengthen what’s healed.

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Yuletide Reflection

The close of the year is a time for reflection, when long hours of darkness make doing useful work difficult, and cold weather makes staying indoors seem like the best option.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is always handy with words of guidance about how we should aim to be in the world. Wendell can come across as a bit pompous at times, but as a poet, I think he’s earned it.

My Christmas gift to you, an excerpt from Mr. Berry’s latest book, “What are People FOR?”:

“We clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”

This Yuletide season, I hope you enter many little circles of arms, and hear many fragments of the music of life.

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Pure Play

During our two-day art and play therapy conference in Mumbai, we talked about a lot of things: brains, trauma, diagnosis, cultural issues, techniques, and theories of arts and play therapies. We also played a good deal to break up the lectures. One of my standard methods of waking up an audience is to have a couple of people come up on stage and teach us all some hand-slap games from childhood.

Hand-slap games are great for a few reasons: they make you stand up and move, they make you engage with a partner, they provide opportunities for both vertical and horizontal neural integration, and they’re fun. It’s most fun when there are people in the audience from different cultures who can teach us games in a variety of languages. I’ve taught and learned these games in many countries now, and I think the Asians may have won.

I’ve seen American and European audience members struggle with some fairly basic hand games, but I’ve never seen an Indian or Thai or Cambodian not be able to completely master a complex hand slap game in English in a few minutes. This phenomena makes me wonder why those of us in the West seem to struggle some with learning new pattern/language games when our friends in SE Asia don’t. I have two hypotheses, and no way to test them, so for now they’re only guesses:

1. Our overuse of tech tools has deteriorated our abilities to learn new physical pattern games and songs. We spend a huge proportion of our play time now engaged with screens and keyboards (like I am right now). I wonder if one of the costs of this new form of engagement is the quickness with which we pick up new physical patterns. Even though a lot of these new gadgets are made in SE Asia, very few people have access to the internet at home, and fewer have x-boxes or other video games at home (except in S Korea and Japan, which I’m not including here). Most college students in India still write papers out by hand, even for computer science classes. Note: the audience was of mixed ages from 18-75, and I didn’t see a difference that way. The men were generally a little slower to learn the games than the women, but I expect that’s because boys play fewer hand slap games than girls and therefore have less practice.

2. There may be different neural pathways and/or structures in our brains depending on whether we are in a collectivist or individualist culture. Although little girls in the West also play hand slap games, we don’t  generally spend as much time with peers as children in the east do. Families in SE Asia are often larger than ours, meaning there are more likely to be sisters around to play with than in the West, and people here tend to live in close-knit multi-family communities (even in high rise apartment buildings). They also think differently about connections than we do in the West. Like I mentioned in my post about manners, people in SE Asia tend to think far more often in terms of “we” than “me”.

I’m not attempting to make a value judgement here, I’m just pointing out anecdotal evidence that there may be a hidden cost in terms of our cognitive abilities attached to our typical Western lifestyle. Certainly, being a little slow on the uptake for learning  a new hand slap game isn’t likely to cost anyone a raise or a Nobel Prize, but what other mental capacities may we be unknowingly sacrificing for tech and personal space? Now that we have the tech (ironically) to look inside our own heads and examine the workings, maybe it’s time to look at how our choices of lifestyle and mindset impact our abilities to learn and connect, preferably before we loose something important that we never knew we had.

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Graciousness

When I was growing up, manners were a Big Deal. Table manners, party manners, school and church and friend’s house manners were all bundled up together in what my mother sometimes called “home training”. Essentially, manners give us cultural reference points for how to behave appropriately for our class, age, gender, position, and culture. Because of my rather intense “home training”, I am able to write a damn fine thank-you note, host a cocktail party successfully, attend a wedding without causing a ruckus, and otherwise generally behave in a way that befits an adult White woman in the U.S. (especially the South, where manners remain a Big Deal).

While I’ve been roaming around India, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the role of manners in a global village. India is a very diverse and ancient place- the manners of the people here are traced back millennia, and can be quite complex and formal. For example, on the first day of our conference, the Chief Guest (a high-ranking bureaucrat from the University) was over an hour late. The opening of the conference was delayed until he arrived, at which time he gave a rambling, off-topic talk for another hour. No one left or began to talk to friends, or checked texts. Every single one of the 200+ audience members waited quietly and respectfully until he finally quit talking and left.

I cannot even imagine the depths of arrogance involved in being a person who thinks nothing of keeping 200 people waiting for an hour (he did not apologize) and proceed to ramble for another hour. My fellow Americans would’ve walked out, possibly after setting him ablaze.

Which brings me back to manners.

In my small experience, Indian people are intensely mannerly, to the point that I’ve begun to wonder if they might all be psychic. I think inside my head, “I’d love another cup of tea”, and it appears. Seriously. As a guest in an Indian home, you are not allowed to lift a finger to help your own self, no matter how stubbornly American-ly self- sufficient you may feel.

Really, manners generally boil down to displays of graciousness. In the West, this generally means helping guests, elders, and friends feel at ease. In India, graciousness seems to extend past helping others feel at ease to helping others feel a sense of being respected and valued, sometimes at the cost of the ease of the host. For example, if you say to your Indian host, “Wow, it’s hot in here”, you may find the whole family being organized into teams to fan you, or to fix the AC, or to otherwise insure that you experience no discomfort whatsoever.

The Indian sense of graciousness involves a level of self-sacrifice I’m not sure I can really grasp as a Westerner. An Indian person would far rather be hot, tired, out of cash, and foot sore than to have a guest do the smallest thing that might require effort. It’s a complete reversal of the usual power balance we see in the U.S.- here, the guest is not just made comfortable, he or she is made to be entirely without any cares of any sort for the duration of the visit regardless of what else the host may need or want to be doing. This appears to be true in homes of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and any other religious or cultural group on the subcontinent.

Interestingly, this concept of complete graciousness to guests seems to extend to clients in the psychotherapy setting. I’m only beginning to put together the whole picture for myself, but it feels as if therapy here may be practiced with a natural sense of attunement and empathy that we work hard to cultivate in therapists in the West. I wonder if we all began to treat our clients as guests in our home rather than as paying customers involved in a business transaction if there might be a shift in the depth and effectiveness of our work?

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Taking off for the wild blue yonder-

I’m leaving today for a lightening-fast 2 week study abroad experience with 8 intrepid graduate students. We’re going to India: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Mumbai. I may or may not find time and internet connections to post while we’re gone. In the event of no writing time, here are links to some of the fabulous agencies we’ll visit while we’re there:

Salaam Baalak Trust, New Delhi: http://www.salaambaalaktrust.com/city-walk.asp

Provides food, shelter, and education for thousands of street children. They also run a city walk tour program, which we will get to experience. The city walk tours provide income for the programs, training for the kids who are guides, and give tourists a clearer insight into the lives of street children.

Arpan, Mumbai: http://arpan.org.in/

Provides prevention of and treatment to child victims of sexual abuse in Mumbai. Also provides parent education. Arpan is sending speakers to our expressive arts conference in Mumbai.

TTK Hospital for Addictions, Chennai: http://www.addictionindia.org/

We won’t be travelling down to Chennai on this trip, but they are sending a speaker to the conference. One of India’s oldest and largest treatment centers for addictions.

We’ll also be doing tourist stuff: Taj Mahal, Rathambore Tiger Park, Amer Fort, Water Palace, etc.

And eating lots of great, fresh, local Indian food. More posts with photos to come-

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ONE.

I read this morning about the death of Stella Young, a disability activist in Australia. In her brief years, Ms. Young managed to make a very large impact on disability policy, and changed a lot of people’s ideas about the limits of those with disabilities. She did this in between frequent surgeries for her painful condition.

Reading her story made me think of some other people who have single-handedly made an oversize positive impact. Here are a few exemplars:

1. Tony Kerwin, founder of Destiny Rescue (destinyrescue.org). Tony is an electrical contractor from Australia. One summer on vacation with his family, he decided that the sale of young children for sex had to stop. So, he went back to Australia, sold his business, sold his house, roped a few pals into his nutty scheme, and founded Destiny Rescue. Ten years on, DR has group homes in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Mozambique, and is working on opening operations in India and the Dominican Republic. To date, DR has rescued and housed over 1,000 children trapped in sex slavery.

2. Ann Jernberg & Phyllis Booth (ok, they’re two people, but Ann died before she got to do all she wanted to, and Phyllis picked up the baton). Ann Jernberg worked in Chicago Head Start in the 1960’s. Her job as interventionist was to help kids with behavior problems. By herself. In  Chicago. Being a smart woman, Ann quickly realized one person could never meet the need of thousands of preschoolers, so she set about creating a program of interventions that other speech-language pathologists, social workers, teachers, and psychologists could use. She called it Theraplay and today, The Theraplay Institute (theraplay.org) trains helping professionals around the world in developmentally appropriate interventions for young children with behavior problems and trauma. Interestingly, science is catching up with Ann, finally, and explaining how Theraplay activates the parts of the brain related to human connection and healing.

3. Jean Baker Miller- Was a one-woman crusade against the patriarchy in psychiatric medicine in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jean was a psychiatrist, and she knew that the dominate paradigm of individualism, separation, and “standing on your own two feet” was unnatural and isolating. Despite a deluge of sexism, she marched on, publishing “Towards a New Psychology of Women” in 1976. Eventually, her ideas evolved into Relational-Cultural Theory, which informs the practice of hundreds of therapists worldwide (jbmti.org).

4. Soulaf Abas- Is a one-woman mission to tell the children of Syria that the world hasn’t forgotten them. Soulaf is an MFA student and visual artist living in the US from Syria. When the civil war broke out, her family suffered. When she heard that the children in the camps in neighboring countries thought the world had forgotten them, she scratched up some grant money and went to work. She gathered dozens of drawings and letters from local children for the children in the camps. And then she flew back to the region, spent 10 weeks in the camps leading art-based activities for the kids, and gave them the letters and drawings from the kids here.

All of these people are bright and passionate, but none are wealthy, exceptionally well-connected or superhuman. And this is only a set of four out of who knows how many people with similar stories around the world. Imagination is the only limit.

In the comments, please share stories of others who have made an impact.

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Heartache is a Real Thing.

Last night, I watched a documentary called “Shunned” about the old order Amish (old order is sort of like orthodox) practice of shunning. I have no idea how the filmmaker managed to get access to the people s/he interviewed, but the whole film was first-person stories of leaving the order. All of them, including a young woman who had only left home a few days prior to her first interview, talked about how painful it was to disconnect from the world they knew to enter a world they didn’t understand and were raised to believe is evil and dangerous.

The pain of being away from family was compounded greatly by the fact that leaving the order means you’re also excommunicated from the church, which means you’re going to hell. The Amish believe in a very literal, physical afterlife experience, so spending time in a burning pit is not a metaphor for them, it’s a real thing that happens. This belief is part of the reason that the Amish practice of shunning is so effective as a disciplinary method in the community.

In the Amish world, members of the community who don’t follow all of the rules can be shunned, usually for a specific period of time, but sometimes permanently. Shunning involves isolating the person from the group; they sit alone at meals, work alone at chores, sleep alone, sit alone in church. No one speaks to them except to give directions. Once the period of punishment is over, the person is usually able to rejoin the community, but will certainly think twice before making the same mistake again.

The Amish have been using shunning as a way to keep order in their communities since the inception of the religion. It works. Really well.

Shunning is sort of the idea behind our prisons, but far more effective because it’s even more painful. The people in the documentary used the term “heart broken” a lot when describing how it felt to be turned out by all of the people in their lives who matter to them. Heartache is a real, actual experience of pain. If you’ve ever been dumped, you know this. Science, however, has long poo-poo’d the idea of heartache as actual physical pain.

As it turns out, the Amish and dumpees everywhere are right. Emotional pain is just as painful and as real as physical pain. Eisenberger & Lieberman (2005), a couple of neuroscientists, proposed an idea they called “Social Pain Overlap Theory”, or SPOT. Essentially, the point they made is that the pain of social exclusion or teasing processed along the exact same neural and biological pathways as physical pain.

Another term I really like from neuroscience is “technomyopia” which is the idea that only studies that use fancy machines can prove things we know and have always known from common sense and common experience. SPOT is a great example of that; humans have always known that having your heart broken hurts like hell. In fact, it hurts as much as breaking any other part of you. But because scientists have seen this happen with fMRI’s and other fancy machines, it now has a name and is considered to be empirically true.

And that’s a good thing.

With Eisenberg & Lieberman’s work, therapists and other squishy-feelings types can say, Hey, because SCIENCE! when we talk about the pain of heart ache and social exclusion. So, back to the Amish for a minute.

One of the reasons the old-order Amish continue to exist, although their lifestyle is very harsh, non-luxe, zero-tech, and isolated is that they are geniuses at forming and maintaining communities. Amish families usually live in clumps of a dozen or so. Families tend to be large, so a dozen families can make up a community of enough folks to do all of the farming and other work needed to sustain themselves with almost zero contact with the rest of us. The people in the community come to depend on each other for their survival, as well as for friendship and emotional comfort. They are all important to the community; everyone matters to everyone else.

Amish folks are rarely alone; they work in groups, eat at long family tables, go to church every week without ever sleeping in, children share beds, etc. Shunning works because the communities are so effective. Because every individual matters to the community, the community matters to the individual. Shunning is horrible because the community is wonderful.

The dominant culture in the U.S. isn’t very good at the community thing. When was the last time you sat down to supper with all of your siblings, your parents, and your bachelor uncle? When was the last time you helped your bff build a house? Who grew your salad from lunch yesterday?

Shunning is still painful for the rest of us. SPOT insures that anytime a human being is isolated by others, removed from the communal table, and told they’ve done wrong, it’s terrible. When your co-workers don’t invite you to happy hour, it sucks, even if you’re 40 and you know it’s not really the end of the world.

Even when our communities are loose and poorly constructed, SPOT is real. The Amish are careful to put a time limit on the shunning. Amish people who are shunned know it will end, and they can go back to belonging (usually, excommunication is a little different, but even then, people can return, it’s just a lot harder. Forever shunning is like capital punishment and is reserved for serious offenses, like murder and rape). Shunned Amish people know it will only last a few days or weeks, and then they’ll be accepted right back into the fold.

When we shun or exclude people in our world, there’s no clear limit on how long it will go on, or what the person can do to return. This is particularly damaging for adolescents, who desperately need to matter, but don’t have the social skills to make it happen or the experience in life to know that everything is temporary, and that this too shall pass. To an adolescent who is excluded from the community of his/her peers, it seems like forever, like capital shunning.

And here’s my point: as adults, we know social exclusion hurts. As smarty-pantses, we even have scientific proof of this, the SPOT. We need to do a much better job of making sure there’s a way out of the shunning penalty box for kids. Kids who don’t believe that they matter often don’t think anyone else does, either, and we know where that leads.