The soil upon which two brains are brought together

Buber said before there is a self, there is an other.

A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human, and to become human is what the individual has been created for.

And so, he believed that the path to divinity was through human contact. This approach to interpersonal connection is deeply spiritual, and probably too mushy for most.

But his theory is also highly biological. Pinsky, the board certified physician, bases his practice of addiction medicine on that philosopher’s same principle. He has explained numerous times in his books and lectures that the interpersonal experience is everything:

It is where we find ourselves, it is where we find love, it is where we find the capacity to understand things, to see things with a new pair of glasses, and to share with another person.

In short, it is how we learn to regulate our emotions and is the foundation of building our relationships. Sounds divine to me. Having faith that we can feel better on the other side of a conversation with someone, tell me that’s not holy. Biological, but also holy.

Here’s another message from the same doctor:

Fundamentally, it’s the intimate connection that gives people the soil upon which two brains brought together can teach the mature brain how to regulate.

Here’s one way to think about it. Have you ever had a traumatic experience that caused you to exit that interpersonal frame? Perhaps abuse or neglect or abandonment that made you want to isolate and numb out?

You are not alone. And you have every right to be vulnerable to and suspicious of the idea of reentering that interpersonal frame. Hell, why even bother trusting people again if they have only screwed you over in the past?

This, our doctor says, is exactly why millions of people turn to all these dysfunctional solutions for regulating their emotions, like substances or addictive disorders.

The danger is, when there is no interpersonal connection, we disappear. The asset which is the self, atrophies in isolation.

Nietzsche famously coined the phrase, god is dead, to express the idea that the enlightenment had destroyed the possibility of belief in the divine.

But each of us can kill god on our own, thank you very much. 

Are you watering the soil upon which brains are brought together?

Passive consumers to whom you are delivering doggie treats

Culture isn’t who we are, it’s who we were taught to be.

It’s a story. One that we have all accepted and agreed to tell, whether we realize it or not.

This phenomenon makes culture the most enormous force of persuasion that exists in the world. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Because if you look back to the past fifty years, our culture has completely indoctrinated people with a deluded model of fulfillment. The powers that be have exquisitely trained our brains to look outside ourselves for happiness and meaning.

Bernays, the pioneer of the field propaganda and the godfather of public relations, isn’t solely responsible for this mindset, but he did blaze the culture trail. He’s the subject of the brilliant documentary about the century of the self, proclaiming the following:

It’s not that the people are in charge, but that the people’s desires are in charge. Democracy has been reduced from something which assumes an active citizenry to something that’s now increasingly predicated on the idea that the public are passive consumers to whom companies are delivering doggie treats.

Bernays believed that human beings could never be allowed to truly express themselves. It was too dangerous. They must always be controlled, and thus always be discontent.

It’s one of the reasons billion dollar media companies pervert the cultural narrative. Content is merely the filler material that transmits the true currency of the trade, which is advertising. And ironically, that content the only way to preserve our sense of discontent.

Our culture is like itching powder for the ego. It’s officially become one giant transcontinental engine of gratification.

Pinsky wrote a riveting book about the biological aftershocks of culture. He tells the story of treating the severest cases of drug dependency and psychiatric breakdown, all of which are somehow related to our culture. His thesis really struck a chord with me:

Our culture is like a living, breathing beast that feeds its own need to exit and grow at the expense of the individual. And the people who create the culture tend to be sick and have no idea what’s real. That’s why we’re lacking honest messages about what it really means to be a healthy human being. Our culture is just like the junk food we live on. It fills people up without the distracting burden of nourishment, overwhelming them messages that arouse and stimulate and suggest that the answer to all problems is the same, gratification.

Pinsky confirms one of my long held theories, which is that nobody actually wants us to be happy and healthy. Think about it. Did you ever notice that trauma and dysfunction are celebrated, elevated and idealized? Have you ever tried to enjoy a salad and sparkling water while everyone else at the table is pounding wings and beer?

People don’t get rewarded for creating a healthy lifestyle that brings them joy, they get ostracized. Healthy people aren’t that interesting.

What’s more, people who are content are difficult to maneuver. It’s important that we continue to cast light on the darkest parts of our culture, and we continue to routinely honor the higher forces whose stories are more trustworthy. 

What story has your culture trained you to believe about yourself?

The catastrophic misinterpretation of bodily sensations

Those lovely biological events like anxiety, panic, mania, depression and trauma come for us all eventually.

And if we don’t anticipate that suffering ahead of time when we’re in a calm, cool state, then it will be impossible for us to execute a recovery plan when the pressure is on. And we will feel like the world is slowly closing in on us like a trash compactor.

Psychiatric doctors often observe this with their patients. Through a variety of genetic and environmental triggers, someone becomes locked inside of a biological prison. Their brain’s rational understanding is overwhelmed. And what medical training tells the doctors is, don’t try to deal with the trauma until this patient is in a more solid biological state and more secure.

Think about that last sentence for a moment, because this concept is profoundly helpful for the average person.

In the same way that we use first aid kits, fire extinguishers and safe rooms to protect our houses in the event of an emergency, our mind and spirit should follow suit. Each of us should make our own plan that maps out a robust repertoire of activities guaranteed to provide us with the experience of safety and security.

Like talking to loved ones on the phone or in person, physical movement, mediation, breathing exercises, and so on.

One physician, whose books that have had a huge impact on my growth, makes a great speech to his addiction patients:

Your brain chemistry needs to settle down and return to normal, so you can begin to think more clearly and engage in the emotional experience of recovery. To contain the panicking spread of anxiety, you must be able to identity and put a comprehensible label upon your feelings. If you stay with that process and don’t panic, you will be able to pass safely through each stage of anxiety and onto the next level.

Sound like a difficult skill to learn? You’re right.

Choosing to wait instead of acting in panic and urgency is an act of faith. In fact, most people never figure out their own safety plan. Others, like myself, require a few panic attacks and depressive episodes before they get serious about it.

But when you find yourself gripped in some biological vise, there’s no room in your head for anything else. And it’s comforting to know that there are tools and rituals at your disposal to keep the walls from closing in.

Don’t wait until you start working yourself up into a state of panic and imagining the worst.

Dig your well before you’re thirsty. Create a custom process for getting out of the grip you are in. 

How will you cope with the relentless force of your biology?

When things end unfairly and without warning

One of the great parts about being an adult is, we have the power to leave without explanation.

Whether it’s a dinner party, some event we’re stuck at, that club we joined a long time ago, even the job we worked at for years, we don’t have to explain or justify our feelings to anyone.

We can simply walk away and remove ourselves.

And that may evoke feelings of hurt and betrayal and abandonment in the people we leave behind, but that’s their shit to work through, not ours.

Like most things in this life, all we really need is to give ourselves permission. Permission to accept our endings not as divorces, but as graduations. Permission to feel complete about this part of our journey and leap into the unknown.

Seinfeld ran their final episode and nearly eighty million people watched. It quickly became the fourth highest viewed regular series finale in television history.

Not surprisingly, millions of people intensely disliked it. They said it sorely lacked the satisfaction of true closure.

Two decades later, that ending experience taught the show’s creator a valuable lesson. David reflected back on the sitcom and explained how he received so much grief from that final episode, that if he ever did another show, he just wasn’t going to wrap it up. It would just end. Period.

Why might an artist say such a thing? My guess is, because that’s how most of life works. Most things just go away. They end unfairly and without warning or explanation.

Buddhist texts assert that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, evanescent, inconstant. All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.

And yet, the fear of endings is a common touchstone of human existence. Perhaps our evolutionary resistance to change? Perhaps a daily microcosm of the final exit we all face?

Either way, there is no reason to shame ourselves when things end. We can just leave.

And so, if all the energy around you has instructed you that it’s over, if there is nothing left to justify staying, if the people around you are adding nothing to your life, if something feels like it’s dead and just taking up space, if you’re constantly drained from dreading being somewhere each day, if you’re only sticking around because of the guilt to stay loyal to something that has outlived its usefulness for you, walk away.

You will be okay, and so will they.

P.S. I wrote a song about this once called No Royalties. Have a listen!

What are you not allowing yourself to quit?

There but for the grace of grit go I

The academic community has greeted grit with a degree of breathless enthusiasm.

People have been applauding grit as the trait among traits that helps people persevere.

But too much perseverance can be costly. One study demonstrated how grittier individuals might incur some costs by persisting when they could move on. Lucas, the primary researcher, explored grit through the lens of test taking. She found that certain students might not want to give up on solving more difficult questions, to the detriment of answering simpler questions or completing the test, and would end up performing more poorly on the test than predicted.

In short, students would not fare nearly as well on their tests if they had simply stopped, reassessed, and tried something else.

There but for the grace of grit go I.

The other downside to grit that nobody is talking about is a more existential one. Grit can lead to us being unkind to ourselves. In my experience, grit without compassion is just cruelty. If we’re listening to the mean voice inside our head, allowing it to insult and punish us in the name of success, then we are doing something wrong.

Because at the core of the inner critic is shame, and nobody has ever shamed themselves into being the person they want to be. Ever.

As a recovering workaholic, my tendency was always to mistake the inner critic for a sense of discipline. To clobber myself with criticism out of fear of becoming a slacker. That gritty mentality allowed me to uphold my insanely high standards and achieve more than anyone thought humanly possible at a very young age.

The only problem is, those intolerable conditions only ratcheted up with every new year, creating longer hours, greater fatigue, dysfunctional relationships and several stress related illnesses. All in the name of grit.

Because that’s what you do, our culture preaches to us. We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and work harder and hustle and do whatever it takes to push through.

It’s a nice motivational poster, but without compassion, it’s a false victory.

What good is winning if you’re too sore tired at the end of the race to hold up the trophy, and too isolated to have anyone to share it with?

Here’s an achievement that’s worth pursuing. Learning when to let go and stop fighting. There’s real bravery in that, despite it being unrewarded by our culture.

Because it’s not giving up, it’s setting boundaries. It’s not abandonment, it’s permission. It’s a conscious choice to not do something, loving yourself in the process, and trusting that even if you quit, the world will still be there when you return.

Look, that mean voice inside our heads is not going anywhere. It’s wired into our brains evolutionarily. And that’s okay. Maybe real grit is learning to cohabitate with that inner critic like a bad roommate.

Is grit activating a mean voice inside your head that makes you over think everything?

The incomprehensible funhouse of human behavior

Wearing a nametag all the time helps me understand myself more, but it also provides me with an instant psychological analysis of others.

It’s a small, repeatable, portable filter that helps me make sense of those who interact with me. It’s not scientific, it’s not one hundred percent accurate, it’s more of a novelty personality test.

And yet, it never ceases to amaze me what kinds of insights people will subconsciously offer about themselves, simply based on how they react to a sticker.

Years ago, a coworker was asking me if my nametag had limited wearing hours.

Like when you come home from work, he asked, do you take the nametag off for the night? Do you remove it when you’re just sitting around with your wife, watching television?

My answer was a resounding no. Twenty four seven means twenty four seven.

My coworker gave me one of those extended stares you see in sitcoms. His face froze like stone. Then he snapped out of it and made the following comment.

Yeah, but don’t a lot of people just assume that the real reason you wear a nametag all the time is because your wife wants to keep you on a short leash because you never really grew up, never really matured from adolescence, and now you need a mother figured to take care of you all the time?

Whoa. What in the holy hell is this guy talking about? What dark place did that comment come from?

Nice guy and everything, but he clearly just projected his entire dysfunctional vision of what he thinks relationships are right onto me.

Just when you think you’ve heard everything, right?

A bit thrown off by his comment, I replied, well, um, that’s a very interesting question, but no, nobody really makes that assumption about my nametag. But thanks for sharing.

People are so funny. Koontz, my favorite fiction author, says that every human being is a mystery, each mind a maze of passages and secret rooms, and nobody ever really knows anyone or what they might be capable of doing.

And so, if you can find your own little filter to help make sense of everyone you come across, more power to you. Just know that for me, all the nametags in the world still aren’t enough for me navigate the incomprehensible funhouse of human behavior.

However much we appear to understand each other, large chunks of who we are will always remain unknowable.

Don’t you love it when people think they have you pegged?

Wasn’t participating in the tornado of nonsense

Stress doesn’t kill us, our reaction to it does.

We suffer because we let other people’s emergencies become our crisis.

And not to be uncompassionate to their struggle. Everybody hurts, to quote the classic nineties song, but at some point, we have to set a boundary, so their stuff doesn’t become ours. Otherwise we’ll drench our nervous system with a cocktail of frustration and pay the price long after whatever the original event was.

Buddhist monks use the term equanimity, which is the ability to stay calm amid a distressful situation. What’s interesting is, there’s no mention of avoiding feelings. We practice acknowledging and being with our agitation and stress, but we make the choice not to react with anger because of it.

Have you ever had a coworker who challenged your equanimity? Someone who regularly whined about a world that gets more perfect all the time? Someone who took every opportunity to start inane conversations that wasted the team’s time?

It’s quite hard not to give yourself over to that vortex of drama. Hypnotizing ourselves with all these small things is so tempting. Plus, the fear of not being included on those work conversations is strong.

But standing your ground is ultimately healthier for your heart. Not participating in people’s tornado of nonsense is much more life giving. Staying calm when you’re in the blast radius of their distress is satisfying in a way that piling onto the misery heap isn’t.

Besides, anytime we can prove to ourselves that we don’t have to react every time we are annoyed or disappointed, it’s a victory. It’s another reminder that we can take aim at what we want out of life, without allowing the reaction to distraction to interfere. 

For it is not the stress we should fear, but the aftershock of it in our bodies.

What if you quit every activity that stole time away without contributing to the important goals that grow and enrich your life?

Enter the dark satanic mills of mass production

More and more hospitals and health clinics are practicing something called whole person care.

If you’re like me and you read medical journals from the national institute of health for fun, you will notice that healthcare professionals are trained to practice several things.

See the person as a whole and in the context of his or her family and wider social environment.

Take continuity of responsibility for people’s care across many disease episodes over time.

Demonstrate concern for the needs of the presenting patient, but also for the wider group of patients or population.

Coordinate the patient’s care as needed across organizations within and between health and social care.

Compare that to the conventional model of medicine.

Traditionally, our healthcare professionals sought to fix problems and manage diseases. Whereas this new holistic approach seeks to help patients and optimize health.

Instead of simply finding the issue and fixing it, they’re identifying the risk and minimizing it.

As a person with zero medical training whatsoever, this approach to care is fascinating. Whole person care rooted in every good behavior that’s missing from our interactions, medical or otherwise:

Intention, empathy, curiosity, compassion, acknowledgement, acceptance and so on.

Imagine if people treated each other, and more importantly, treated themselves, from that holistic place? Imagine if we actually took the time consider each other’s full spectrum of needs?

In a world where people are valued for their performance, not for who they are; where the powers that be want us to become replaceable cogs in a senseless industrial machine, this idea of whole person care is sorely needed.

Because even if we aren’t producing something of value, we still have value. 

How well are you understanding and acknowledging the nature of holistic human reality in your interactions?

Entering the world of color

When we start using words like always and never, that means our brain is messing with us.

Even if it is comforting in the moment to have something black and white to hang our hats on, engaging in these all or nothing, now or never demands often make things worse, not better.

Phycologists call it dichotomous thinking or cognitive distortions. And the danger is, our overreactions in response to extreme feelings can often lead to behaving impulsively.

Like if we convince ourselves that our depression is so severe that we’re never going to feel normal again, we may play doctor and up the dosage on our prescription without proper medical supervision. Been there before.

Or if we tell ourselves that all the good ones are either gay or married, then our vacillating pattern of extreme thinking will shut off our radar to potential partners with whom we could be deeply fulfilled. Been there before too.

Vanderkolk explains it eloquently in his book about healing from trauma:

People can only enter the world of color by learning to distinguish and appreciate shades of gray. One strategy is noticing our black and white thoughts, spotting words like always, never, everyone, nobody, forever, and so on, and gently contesting them. Asking ourselves questions like. Is there evidence that supports your thought? Are you considering all angles, or are you leaving things out? Could this assumption be challenged by someone else? Whom do you care about that might not see it this way? Whom are you being unfair in making this opinion?

This type of inner dialogue takes tons of practice and even more kindness. But it does work. There’s profound value in reminding ourselves that nothing in this life is either completely disastrous or absolutely wonderful. That everything falls somewhere in the middle.

Over time, we will get out of the habit of reducing a whole continuum of possibilities down to the two most extreme options and start thinking more balanced thoughts

How might your brain be playing tricks on you right now?

The forces of denial are lavishly funded

The hard part about anxiety is accepting it as a condition you actually have.

Because nobody likes hearing they have something. Or that there’s a clinical label to apply to their brain. Especially if society stigmatizes that label.

Anxiety, depression, panic, mania? Nope, those are conditions that other people suffer from, not me.

Meanwhile, some medical professionals won’t push acceptance as a requirement for treatment.

While skimming through a bipolar disorder journal in a doctor’s office recently, there was a piece about physicians who said their patients were willing to accept the pharmaceutical interventions, as long as doctors did not require them to accept the label as well.

Who ever said denial wasn’t a useful part of the human coping mechanism?

In my experience, though, accepting my anxiety as a real, urgent, pervasive and expensive problem not only informed me about my condition, but also empowered me to build a toolkit to help manage it. What’s more, learning that anxiety is not who I am, and that my condition may be part of me, but it’s not the heart of me, went a long way towards healing.

If there’s one thing my nametag has taught me, it’s that just because something identifies you, doesn’t mean it defines you. To quote the famous journalist, if you’re anxious, you’re not crazy, you’re not a machine with broken parts, you’re a human being with unmet needs.

The other reason acceptance is so important is because managing anxiety, or any mental condition for that matter, is a difficult process. And it never goes away. It’s your permanent companion.

Once you accept it, you have to make a lifelong commitment to healing yourself, undertaking a significant project that involves changing your lifestyle and behavior.

Reminds me of a fascinating survey that interviewed five thousand people about their happiness. They listed ten habits that were found to be strongly linked to life satisfaction:

Giving, relating, exercising, appreciating, learning, direction, resilience, optimism, acceptance and meaning.

Sure enough, acceptance was found to predict happiness most strongly. And ironically, acceptance was also revealed as the one habit that people tend to practice the least.

Here’s the question participants were asked in that category.

How often are you kind to yourself and think you’re fine as you are?

If you’re suffering from anxiety or some other complicated condition, consider your own answer to that question.

And if your healing journey seems to be puttering along at a snail’s pace, perhaps greater acceptance is the missing piece. 

What’s a part of you that isn’t the heart of you?

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