Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Hidden Emotional Language that Drives our Life

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The view we hold of ourselves and the outside world form in the womb of our developmental environment. The same way the relative proximity of rocks, dust and gasses can form an accretion disk that eventually translates into a planet like our earth, bits of experience and ideas we are composed of and exposed to coalesce into what we come to know as our identity.

If we were to probe the depths, we would see the echoes of these influences that shape who we are now stretch all the way to the dawn of the cosmos. We are representative of the nature of nature; more specifically, the particular climate of nature we are composed of and exposed to. The nearer the successive echoes of influence are to what we know of as the present, the more powerful the role they play in shaping what we experience as “us”. Experience has a sort of radioactive half life. Over time the power of the event to influence us decays and fades. Again like nuclear power, some of our experiences can, like a star, coalesce to become hot enough to ignite a furnace that sustains itself for a long time.

The ideas we use as a lens to understand the depths of our nature are grossly inadequate to render a clear image of ourselves. For many of us, the reality of ourselves is driven by influences that lurk beyond the horizon of our cognitive faculties to see much less steer. Our words serve as a pale shadow of the vast sea of influences that conspire to render our true self. The various elements that motivate our behaviors masquerade behind a wall of verbal language. In reality we speak an emotional language through our behaviors that hides outside the range of our cognitive capacities to see, much less alter in any significant way.

Some of us never examine, much less cultivate and refine our understanding of this hidden emotional language through a lens of sound reason. In the darkness of self unawareness, we sleepwalk through a repetitive pattern of relational poverty and chaos – pounding at the chords of our identity until the destructive waves of relationship swallow us whole and drown the last morsels of hope that cling to the surface of once energetic and youthful dreams.

This small story is meant to illuminate how this can happen and the rare calamity of circumstances that can snap us out of it:

Marcus didn’t seem to be able to please his father when it came to getting things done. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed there was always something missing. His father John worked twelve hours a day six days a week and sometimes joked that he only worked “half days”. Marcus and his older brother Andy were about a year and a half apart. When he came home from work John would tend to chores around the house and communicate his disappointment at the inadequate way his sons had done their chores. He would make them “complete the task right” then he would read the newspaper while he ate dinner, shower and go to bed.

Neither Marcus nor his brother Andy was favored by their father. John seemed to have an endless supply of disappointment to go around. He once went to a parent teacher conference where the teacher praised Marcus for his attitude and excellent work. Marcus was in the hallway, but could still overhear the conversation. He was beaming with pride because he felt that he was finally being recognized for his efforts. When his father came out he cocked one eyebrow up and coyly asked; “How’d it go dad?” His father replied flatly; “There’s always room for improvement”.

John hoarded both money and items. His garage was stacked with almost every mechanical tool so he could work on his own vehicles. He also had an array of woodworking and welding tools for whatever might need building or fixing. He would typically buy these items at auctions for pennies on the dollar so he could save more money. He was neat and methodical about the order in which his tools were to be kept. If his boys had a bike to work on and did not clean and put the tools away correctly the incident would be followed by weeks peppered with lectures and berating.

John’s wife Betty was no exception to John’s continual negative assessment of performance. He complained both to and about her on a regular basis for her failure to accomplish various things. Betty resented what she saw as constant criticism. She would not argue with him directly, but she would do things like overspending on frivolous items knowing how much this irritated John. In response to this John began taking more control of their finances and stored away money for what he called “a rainy day”. It confounded John that she could be so shortsighted. He believed he was protecting the family by putting her on a strict allowance. He also carefully examined all receipts from the grocery store and so on to make sure their dollars were being stretched as far as possible.

The more control John exerted on Betty the more creative she would be at finding ways to express her irritation at him. She would let the laundry pile up so that he would have to hunt for clean clothes, fail to be on time for appointments because she “got tied up” as a means of expressing her hostility. John felt she was being lazy and irresponsible and he told her so directly. While she did not reply verbally to his criticisms, she would bitterly complain about his cruelty to her friends and children when he was not present.

By the time Andy was eight years old Betty had overeaten to the point of being morbidly obese. Her sex life suffered to the point of extinction which was a disappointment to her as did other areas of her marriage relationship but this did not seem to bother John very much. He responded by working even more.

Over time Betty began to lavish more attention on Andy while ignoring and rejecting Marcus. She resented what she saw as Marcus attempting to constantly please his father. She felt he was mentally weak for not standing up to him. This division between her sons was not a sentiment she actually thought through, it both emerged and was expressed without either thought or direct communication.

The hostile undertones that flowed through the relationships within the family were viewed as completely normal. “If only mom would just do as dad said, things would be a lot better around here.” Marcus thought. Andy would say to his brother; “Why bother trying to please dad? He’s just going to find something else to bitch about.” This was one of his mother’s favorite phrases that he adopted fully as his own. He knew to never say it in front of his father. Like his mother, he felt a blend of empowerment and guilt when he voiced his rebellion to his brother in secret.

As Marcus grew older he worked hard, saved his money and bought a house by age twenty-three. While this was considerably ahead of his peers, his personal relationships were not as successful. Marcus had a series of troubled relationships with females. The relationships would begin rapidly and with promise, but they unfailingly turned hostile and ended chaotically.

He found himself attracted to women in dire need and circumstances. At first his presence in their lives was a welcome relief from the plight they were in, but the relationship would soon progress into an unpleasant and overbearing experience for both of them. Neither would address the way they felt directly. Most of the relationship chaos happened over immediate circumstances and never addressed the destructive undertones and hostility that drove these cycles.

Marcus felt resentment because of the “fact” that the females in his life didn’t appreciate the opportunity he offered them to improve their lot in life. He communicated his dissatisfaction through cold emotional distance, criticism and a frequently bitter face. His female companions would interpret his behaviors as a rejection of them. If any confronted him, rather than deal directly with these emotions, he simply went out to the garage to “work”.

In his late twenties Marcus met Laura. She, like the others, was in a desperate situation when they met. She had lost her job and was about to lose her apartment. He offered to let her stay with him and a romance soon followed. She became pregnant within two months. Although the relationship tracked like the rest with signs of distress the two got married. The distractions of the wedding plans and preparing for the arrival of their child helped to mask the underlying hostilities that were building between them.

One day when his son was a year old he came home from work early and found his wife in bed with a man. In the aftermath, and based on a suggestion from the only friend he told of the incident, he and his wife tried to get counseling, but it was ineffective. The counselor was quite adept at probing for the underlying causes of the relational disharmony they experienced, but both Marcus and Laura were equally adept at not dealing directly with their own contributions to that disharmony. Neither of them was willing to identify, nor admit their own roles in shaping the relationships they cultivated. When it was suggested that their son was learning to relate based on the role models he was exposed to they both responded with defensive self-praise. Among their claims was that they never fought in front of him so it would never be a problem.

Laura expressed that she felt that Marcus hated her and never spent any time with her. Marcus felt that Laura was weak and had given her self over to indulging her laziness and passions at the expense of the family. The counselor ended the sessions before any resolution. He said he could not help them if they were unwilling to deal with their roles in the stress in their marriage. They were surprised that the counselor ended their relationship. He told them if they ever decided to be serious, to look him up. They both thought they needed a counselor that understood them better, but neither pursued any further action.

They did not talk about the infidelity for a time after counseling ended. It was an unspoken rule. Except for the one person Marcus confided in, neither of them discussed the issue with their friends or extended family. Over time, Marcus added the betrayal of their marriage to the list of things he would bring up to express his dissatisfaction with Laura, but only when the tension reached a fever pitch. Externally she sheepishly endured his “endless lectures” and wildly cursed his insensitivity and meanness in her mind.

When their son was just over two Marcus came home to find the house unusually empty. He called around to find his wife and child. When he called his parents’ house they told him Laura had dropped off his son with them because she needed to run some errands, but she was now late picking him up. They didn’t know exactly where she was, but Betty assured him she was probably just “tied up somewhere” and not to worry about it.

Later that same evening the police called him and asked if he owned a red Toyota. When he answered yes, they proceeded to tell him his wife had been killed in an auto accident. She and her male companion had slammed into a tree. Both were killed instantly. Neither was wearing a seat belt. It was later found that her blood alcohol level was 2.5, nearly three times the legal limit.

Laura’s funeral was very awkward. Marcus’s mother Betty held the baby as the receiving line slowly moved past John and Marcus. Sad looks, silent handshakes and hugs were the majority of reaction. No one outside the family had known of their marital difficulties and Laura’s infidelity until now. The accident report published in the paper revealed the names. The male was not even an acquaintance of Marcus. The “real” story was whispered in hushed tones in quiet corners, but no one was brave or uncouth enough to bring it up to Marcus in his time of loss, that is… except his father.

After the funeral those that attended had the traditional get-together for nervous eating and the painful exchange of hollow and glib statements aimed at reassuring each other that it will be alright. Marcus was in a daze. “What am I going to do? What could I have done? Would counseling have worked if I hadn’t been so damned stubborn?” he wondered. He was staring blankly at the floor when John came over and sat down beside him.

John uncharacteristically put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said; “You know son, don’t you worry about this, she was just a slut anyway.” Marcus began to feel rage well up inside before John completed his sentence. His lip began to quiver violently and he leaned away from his father’s grasp on his shoulder. He stood up and methodically faced his father. John was uncertain how to react. “It’s OK son.” He said sheepishly. “Fuck you!” Marcus shouted. The quiet murmurs that were going on throughout the house stopped immediately. All eyes were fixed on Marcus and his father. “Fuck you!” he repeated even louder. “If you hadn’t been such a judgmental prick my whole life I wouldn’t have learned to be so goddamned stubborn and judgmental!” Betty’s jaw dropped open. Some of the cheese dip she had been nervously chewing dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. “You know why she cheated on me dad? Do you?” he blurted out. “She thought I hated her. She couldn’t stand to have me put her down day after day after day. She felt like nothing she ever did was good enough. You know what else? This wasn’t the first time. We went to counseling last year and he tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. I just kept it up, needling her till she died from a thousand cuts and you know what? I have you to thank. I should have known…” He paused; “Look at mom!” He pointed to her as she sat on the couch, mouth still open. “She’s eating herself to death trying to get the fuck out of your life, and you know why? She can’t stand you! Where’s Andy? As far away as he could get from you! You and your “save for a rainy day” and “nobody measures up”… Marcus began waving his arms up and down and continued; “…well what’s your rainy day fund doing for you now dad ‘cause it’s fucking raining? What’s it all gonna do for you when you’re all alone? You gonna count your fucking tools and coins. Why don’t you work on that for a while dad!”

When Marcus finished the room was still silent. No one knew how to respond or what to say. He silently collected his son from beside his mother who was now leaking cheese dip onto her blouse and left the house. For the next several moments everyone was too stunned to say or do anything anything besides a nervous shuffle or two. Marcus didn’t return that day. After what seemed like a very long time the guests began passing a few timid statements back and forth about how Marcus was “not himself”; that he was just “overwhelmed with grief”, and “not to worry, he’ll come around”. They left as fast as they could from the gathering with the empty “Let me know if there’s anything I can do…” platitude. The whisper campaigns in the community about the incident smoldered silently in the background for weeks and months.

John was confounded by the event. He tried to call Marcus several times later that day and even as the weeks progressed. Marcus simply did not respond. Andy was unable to come to the funeral as he had just landed a job clear across the country at the time of the accident. He sent a sympathy card and was largely unaware of the events that transpired. He and Marcus had drifted apart over the years. Betty just ate more.

Marcus had resolved from that moment forward that he would change his life. Within the first week, he reconnected with the counselor that had tried to save his marriage the year before. After many tears and bouts of self-loathing he began to understand the underpinnings of the values that shaped his life and relationships. The counselor helped him to begin to connect his behaviors with their impact on his relationships with himself and others. He helped him move from blaming his father and himself to understanding the emotional starvation that defined his father’s world. He didn’t want the same disaster to fall on to the next generation so he began developing both the choice and the discipline make real changes in his life.

Although brief and spotty, his relationship with his extended family slowly returned, but it was by no means restored to its former self. He learned to keep his emotional distance from his wounded family and slowly tried to pick up the rest of the pieces of his life. After a year and a half he met a widow with two small children. Their relationship slowly blossomed into a family over time. Marcus began the process of renewal. Echoes of the past would still haunt him from time to time. He would find himself slip into harshly critical remarks especially when he was under stress, but he knew the disastrous effects of this behavior. He would quickly catch himself, apologize and move on to a more constructive and appropriate expression of his emotions.

Eventually Marcus learned to separate disappointment and anger for genuine events from harsh and controlling judgments. At first he learned to control the way he responded to the existing emotions that cycled through his life. As he continued to grow his emotional responses themselves began to reform. Marcus began to see the world in a different light and this new light was built on how well it served to nourish the people in his care, which included himself. These and other efforts to redefine who he was, and the deepening character that resulted, helped to develop even more strength in the relationship between him and his new family. A new beginning had finally arrived. He began to appreciate and feel empowered about the person he was becoming.

END

Those of us that experience cycles of chaos that result from long practiced destructive behaviors may not recognize the connection between these behaviors and our experience of life. As a result of our blindness we are ill equipped to use our experience as a tool to grow. Instead of overcoming adversity to realize triumph, we wallow in self-made chaos and look for someone or thing irrelevant to blame and punish. If we can find no person or thing to blame we simply vent our hostility on our environment in every direction further perpetuating the chaos.

The relationships that are present in our developmental environment shape what we come to understand and expect as reality. This expectation has a powerful influence on the way we experience life. If we expect to be unloved, we will project that onto a reality that may or may not be communicating that actuality. Our shared experience of reality is often overshadowed by the emotional realities that are present in our identity. We see the world as we are, not as it is. Socrates called it the cave. For a rare few of us the circumstances in our life can conspire to give us a powerful enough moment of clarity to see a choice and motivate a sustained change. If, in that moment, we seize the opportunity and make the most of it, there’s a chance we can awaken to steer our life on a different course – to emerge from the darkness of the cave.

For many the opportunity goes unnoticed because we don’t sufficiently understand the connections between causes and effects that shape our experience. Typically there is no great tragedy or triumph that acts as an inward focused lens enabling us to capture a clear vision of not only who we are, but who we want to be.

Introduction to The Wisdom of Life

I need some honest feedback on a book I am writing called “The Wisdom of Life” The current draft of the Introduction is below. If you are willing to give any feedback I would be very grateful because I am sure it would be better with more insight than my limited self can muster. Thank you.

Introduction:

The Basic Idea

 As biological life forms, we are inseparably dependent on a delicate balance of specific relationships. By biological necessity, our behaviors must include those that cultivate a specific nourishing set of relationships within the greater context of relationships that define reality as a whole. In addition to the relational elements that must be present such as heat, water and oxygen, these elements must be within specific ranges. Too much or too little water is harmful.

A specific balance of interactions both internally and with the external environment is necessary for a nourished and sustained biological state of being. Our harmony or disharmony with these relationships defines what we experience as life. Whether our full potential is realized or the process is diminished or short circuited depends whether or not we meet the full spectrum of our needs.

Using our collective behavior as evidence, it is clear that we undermine and sometimes destroy the delicate balance of relationships we depend on. We do this on individual and community scales — and now with technology as a lever, we are able to behave destructively on a global scale. Understanding why we behave destructively toward ourselves is important — but only to the degree this understanding influences our action toward nourishing our fullest state of satisfaction. Establishing clear vision of our relational needs, understanding where we are in relation to those needs and what we can do to cultivate a nourishing environment is the main point of these ideas.

This collection of ideas is tempered with the recognition that we are altogether an interconnected singular web of life. As influential participants in a common biological relational environment, we affect each other’s experience, whether constructively or destructively. For this reason none of us can be completely fulfilled until we all recognize our need to contribute nourishing value toward each other in the context of the larger community of life. Our status as part of an interdependent whole is the reason this work is being undertaken.

When viewed from a global perspective, our current relationship climate is strained and broken in many ways. Traumatic, predatory and parasitic events are common everyday experiences throughout the relational landscape we call biological life. Even our best case scenario eventually results in our biological body suffocating from some form of disease, trauma and/or imbalances. When these damaging forces reach a critical point, it destroys the unified complement of relationships on which we depend.

The same mixture of nourishing and destructive relationships that characterizes our biological experience is mirrored on our social landscape. Predatory, parasitic and other traumatic events are part of our daily individual and global social experience on personal and community scales. While it can be argued that some things we experience are beyond our control, it is plain that a portion of our experience is driven by behaviors we can influence by our choices. It is the portion of our state of being that is capable of influence through intentional choice and actions that this work will focus on.

While the outward symptoms of self-inflicted chaos in biological, social and other organized structures is often easy to see, the root causes and effective remedies are often not as clear. What are the causal connective tissues that motivate us to behave in ways that are destructive toward our full potential? Why do some of us actively seek out and cultivate relationships that result in poverty and dissatisfaction? Why do we so often express self-limiting behaviors without being aware of our own behavioral complicity? Why do some of us cultivate toxic relationships even after we become aware of our personal complicity? How can we develop the capacity to positively and effectively influence our experience of life? What can we use as a reliable guide to effectively accomplish this? These are the questions and answers about life we will explore here.

With nature and nurture as the lens through which we look at biological life, we can see the factors that influence our experience. Nature in the broadest sense is the womb from which every relationship, biological or otherwise emerges – the rules that govern reality as a whole as well as our local biological climate. Nurture is the relationship between the environment and our biology. In this sense nature and nurture each have distinct characteristics although they are actually facets of the same system.

In simple terms, nature and nurture as a lens is useful to illuminate the relationship between our biological self, and other. We will explore the inseparably intertwined bidirectional relationship between nature and nurture. We will look at how this relationship exchange develops perceptions and response patterns and how these relate to what we experience. We will also look at how we can shape this relational economy so that it influences movement toward our fullest state of satisfaction.

Influencing relationships to cultivate nourishing biological outcomes can only take place if we first have a clear vision of how our natural biological needs relate to the environment. While the capacity for clear vision does not address whether vision is translated to corresponding actions, clear vision is a necessary first step to identify the possibilities. Clear vision is the foundation for effective choice. Developing the necessary and sufficient insight to be able to see the full range of behavioral choices that enable a fulfilling state of being is the focus of this work.

Because deception and ignorance are so tightly bound to an inability to navigate toward intentional and fulfilling states of being, we will explore the ideas we hold and unflinchingly question their validity. This is no small task since deception and ignorance struggle for survival the same way every predator does. They often cooperate on the hunt for reason and chew its flesh to remold it into itself. While the nature of deception and ignorance is predatory, it can only feed on lack of awareness and ideas elevated to the status of truth or diminished to falsehood without reality as the measure of validity. We will compare common conventions in our cultural mindset with reality and in the process, expose and resolve some of the crippling aspects of impaired vision.

The notion of deception may beg the question: If someone is sincere but also deceived, how would they know it? The extremely understated answer is; it is not easy. We will work hard to establish a reasoned approach. The idea here is to examine the scope of human intellectual and behavioral wounds and malnourishment to the degree that it serves as a springboard to do something constructive to address them.


As organized biological structures, our relational dependencies may or may not be supported by our environment. Along with the need for the environment to be of nourishing value, we also have a dependency on certain behaviors we must engage in to satisfy these dependencies. In other words; it is possible to die of thirst in a freshwater lake if we do not behave by drinking the water. Sincere and well intentioned efforts built on faulty vision can still be destructive. Because of this; ignorance and deception is recognized here as agents of poverty and enslavement. In practical terms, our capacity to understand reality is the visionary foundation that must exist to cultivate an intentional and fulfilling experience of life.

The exploration of our nature and potential is done here with a particular emphasis on objective evidence about the nature of reality in general, and biology specifically as a primary guide. This exploration is done with a firm recognition that it involves a certain amount of necessary speculation given the limitations of logic,[1] our senses and our current level of awareness. An attempt to keep the necessary elements of speculation to a minimum and to clearly identify them when they are present has been made.

Because all relationships, including those that define our biology are built on communication, a heavy emphasis on the nature of communication is used here. Communication can bind otherwise separate entities together into an organized coherent whole, or it can destroy unified complementary relationships. This constructive-destructive aspect of communication is true in the language of ideas and between collections of relational entities such as atoms, molecules and cells in our body. Because our current state of being exists in the context of both complementary and chaotic communicative elements, we will explore how to cultivate a relational environment that is complementary with the physical and social communication dependencies that nourish us.


Our biology operates in the context of the relationship climate we both express, and are exposed to. This bidirectional relationship dynamic shapes what we experience as life.[2] This relational climate can be affected by factors both within and beyond our ability to influence. While our ability to influence the total relational climate is limited, the maximum capacity we have to influence our lives can only emerge if we are equipped with both a clear vision of our true needs and the corresponding actions that translate that vision to a reality of being.

In order to effectively cancel out the effects of toxic relational dynamics within our power to influence we must first understand our real biological needs. Since accurate vision and corresponding behaviors is the key to effective results, we will explore the means to both understand and develop our participatory capacity to positively influence our experience. The idea undergirding this approach is to strengthen our capacity to shape our relational environment.

Environmental factors dramatically affect our biology, especially in early developmental periods. Along with inherited traits, environmental queues powerfully influence the development of our physiology and metabolism. Environmental influences can predispose us to certain behaviors and temperament. It also shapes our capacity to perceive and respond on many levels.[3]  In order to make authentic choices from our predisposed biological state, a casual approach is insufficient. We will explore what it takes to develop our both state of awareness and our behavioral disciplines so that we can move with intention toward a chosen state of being while simultaneously recognizing the inherent limits of our capabilities.

Accurate awareness of our true nature is a first and crucial step toward participating in fulfilling behaviors that nourish our highest potential. We cannot move toward fulfillment if we do not understand where it is. Further; holding a deceptive notion of what leads to fulfillment can be as destructive or more than ignorance. A lack of awareness and/or inaccurate awareness is considered here as a source of poverty because of how it can limit or destroy our ability to move toward a more satisfied state of being.

Understand the biological tools with which we perceive how they are influenced by environmental factors can help us influence our experience. Because of this, we will explore the factors that form our capacity to perceive. Because our perceptions do not always agree with our actions, we will also focus on the primary role that behavioral disciplines play in shaping our experience of life.

Among our explorations will be how and why we tend to repeatedly gravitate toward our most familiar behaviors, even when they are destructive.[4] We will see how and why times of stress can increase this tendency toward familiar behaviors without respect to what is nourishing.[5] We will also look at the effects of behavioral momentum on our individual identity and our global identity.

Without clear vision of how and why we behave the way we do the possibilities for change are hidden. Those of us exposed to the influence of toxic relational patterns, especially during early development, must first recognize how these translate into an adult inclination toward repetition of these same relationship dynamics. Discovering this is a great challenge which we will use as the foundation to begin the even greater challenge of changing our behaviors.[6] Because of the deep and powerful effects of environmental influences, establishing nourishing change is recognized here as an extremely difficult task.

We will examine the influences that shape the development of our self-image, culture, and our world view. We will also explore how our verbal reasoning capacities[7] can be an inadequate lens with which to perceive our full “behavioral self” and how this impoverished vision can cripple our ability to realize the possibilities or limit us in destructive ways. We will also explore the nature of behavioral momentum and how it can overcome reason. We will explore what is necessary to heal the broken relationship between sound reason and corresponding behavior.

We will use the relational models in biology as the guide to understand those that are also necessary in a social context. Because social communications are an influential aspect of shaping our experience, we will explore the origins and effects of cultural and institutional entities that contribute to our relational environment. We will also compare the behaviors expressed by communities at many scales using our true needs as the measure of value. For example; we will look at the connective tissue between community behaviors that tolerate or induce wounding and starving and how this generates our own poverty. We will also examine the connective tissue of community on many biological scales in order to clearly see our need to cultivate nourishing relationships at all levels of life.

Because abstract ideas at their best can only present an accurate and understandable map, it is recognized that translating the map into the journey does not come by merely understanding a transformative idea. To experience an idea as a reality of being we must become an authentic embodiment of the actual journey. It is recognized that any positive transition that may come from these ideas will have resulted from the discipline and perseverance of those who both embrace and translate this knowledge to corresponding action. Any credit for improved circumstances as a result of adopting these ideas belongs to those who demonstrate the courage and commitment to act on them.


 [1]For more information on the limitations of logic, look up the term “Münchhausen Trilemma”

 [2]It is sometimes argued that we do not have any participatory capacity; that we are carried solely on the winds of predetermined physical mechanics and therefore, free will is nonexistent. The ideas presented here assume an element of our being is capable of making intentional choices based on clear vision and within the constraints inherent in the structure of reality. For a better understanding of the philosophical debate as to whether or not “free will” exists as part of our being, look up the terms “metaphysical libertarianism” and “hard determinism”. Also look up the terms “compatibilists” and “incompatibilists” which addresses some of the assumptions in these two philosophical points of view. Also read “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” by Michael S. Gazzaniga.

 [3]For an example of the connection between environment and biological disposition read “Maternal Antenatal Anxiety and Children’s Behavioural/Emotional problems at 4 years” by Thomas G. O’Connor PhD, Jonathon Heron PhD, Jean Golding, DSc, Michael Beveridge PhD, Vivette Glover, DSc

 [4]For more information on habits in general look up the terms “habit loops” and “long-term potentiation” or read “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg.  Also read “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” by

John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand. American Psychologist, Vol 54(7), Jul 1999, Pages 462-479.

[5]For more information on how stress relates to behaviors read the research paper from Stanford University called “Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity” by Ab Litt, Taly Reich, Senia Maymin and, Baba Shiv

 [6]For an example of how early development is critically related to behavioral patterns later in life read “Critical Periods During Sensory Development” by Nicoletta Berardia,

Tommaso Pizzorussoa and Lamberto Maffei. Current Opinion in Neurobiology Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 February 2000, Pages 138–145

 [7]For examples of some of the inadequacies of our cognitive reasoning functions to accurately perceive situations, look up the terms “categorical perception” and “cognitive bias”

Life as a Work of Art

0141-MusicOfLife-01Some of us may have acquired a musical instrument at some point during the course of our life. Not all of us who did so made the journey from receiving the instrument to becoming a skillful artist. We may have learned to mimic a few songs, but this is not the same as developing the skills to creatively speak meaningful harmonies. Some of us gave up or lost interest when we discovered how hard it is to practice the disciplines required to realize our full potential. Some of us stopped once we learned to parrot a few songs from our neighbors. Some of us never had the opportunity to connect with a teacher capable of helping us realize our full potential. Some of us rejected the investment in us from our teachers. Whatever the case; instead of a source of harmonious meaningful communication, an instrument can become a symbol of wasted potential. Life is just such an instrument.

We all receive the instrument we call life, but not all of us develop the ability to produce meaningful harmonies with our thoughts and behaviors. Still fewer of us become skilled and creative artists with this living instrument we are endowed with. To develop to our full potential we must practice living in harmony with the nourishing intimacies on which we depend. We must also yield willingly and with passionate commitment to the difficult journey that we know will cultivate many returns. To sacrifice this effort on the altar of diminished effort traps us in a prison of mediocrity, or worse, a mindless parroting of some collection of disharmonies we once witnessed and now mimic.

Some of us grew up in environments with harsh undertones or lax disciplines that crippled our capacity to realize our best self. Some of us, despite this challenging beginning, work to cultivate something in ourselves of much greater merit and meaningful substance than would have otherwise happened if we had we given our silent consent to the strangulating cruelty of mediocrity. It is even harder in some ways for those of us who have had supportive environments. We have had the luxury of coasting with the knowledge that there will always be those to help catch us if and when we fall. In each case becoming our best requires a certain fire from within to forge a meaningful life out of the cauldron of mere existence. It is this persistence that cultivates the highest form of character – that which is intentional and creative – rather than a simple reflection of the other voices in the choir. It is from this crucible of adversity from which the life of a true artist can be forged.

Categorical Denial: How Words Can Shape What We See

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Research into the way different languages divide up the visible color spectrum tells us a lot about the effect of language on perception. When the capacity to remember specific colors is tested using people of different language backgrounds, the way colors are linguistically divided across the visible spectrum of colors impacts the ability of the person to remember the colors.[1] In other words; the words we are taught to categorize the things we see actually affect our ability to see and remember them. What we capture or not in our verbal net often depends on the nature and shape of the categorical boundaries embedded in our language.

The undertones of assumption embedded in linguistics have enormous implications on our ability to perceive and respond effectively to reality and to form an accurate sense of self-awareness. The point here is that words can be a source of clear vision and a memory aid, but they can also be a source of subtle and deceptive blindness unless we clearly understand the standards by which their meaning is established.

Assumptions subtly built into the structure of verbal languages can shape what it is that we see rather than reveal what truly is. These assumptions can hide what would otherwise be visible if reality was the sole standard that shaped the meaning of our words. Our words are often used in a feeble attempt to define reality rather than reality as the source that defines our words. We also sometimes believe and perpetuate these verbal deceits both knowingly and unknowingly.[2] Our unwitting assertions can actually fool us into thinking we know something we do not. They can also hide what would otherwise be visible and useful as a navigation aid. This false vision is the very essence of deception.

Even though many of us would acknowledge that we see a limited scope of the nature of reality, we still sometimes behave as if our limited view is more complete than it is. To understand how unfounded linguistic assumptions shape our vision we can examine the typical cultural use of word “life”. There is no doubt biological life and awareness exist, but to believe with certainty that we know the nature of the border between life and non-life, awareness and non-awareness, is an assumption.

Perhaps it is built on our bio-centric perspective, perhaps it is intellectual laziness or perhaps it rides on the winds of unquestioned cognitive tradition; whatever the case, to divide life from non-life along biological lines is arbitrary when we really think about it. While biological and non-biological seem to be an accurate division based on reality, we do not have enough information about the nature of reality to be so sure of where life resides, and where it does not.  When we accept ideas as truth it can artificially box what we see into categories at the same time it obscures possibilities that would otherwise be visible, which is the very essence of categorical denial.


[1] For an understanding of the history of this research as well as a more recent example of this read “The Linguistic Relativity of Person Cognition: An English-Chinese Comparison” by Curt Hoffman, Ivy Lau, and David Randy Johnson Click here for a pdf version.

[2] For some exploration on why we might use words for so many deceptive reasons read “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life” by Robert Trivers

The Nurture of Things

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Most of us are aware that environment plays a role in shaping our biology. A few scars here and there, a creaky joint or two bear witness to environmental influences on biology. What is less commonly known is how powerful and far reaching many other environmental conditions are in shaping our biology. These influences extend to such things as our how we form social relationships, our capacity for intelligence and our ability to experience empathy. While we typically recognize the powerful influence of nature on our biological makeup, the role of nurture is often underestimated.[1]

In simple terms, the nature and nurture aspects of biology are genetics and epigenetics.[2] To view these formative aspects of our biology through a lens that renders some higher clarity we can view genetics, or DNA,[3] like a collection of songs.[4] It serves as the template for what is biologically possible.[5] Epigenetics is like a song player. Epigenetics consists of many molecular sensors that trigger whether and when particular aspects of DNA are activated. Collectively these molecular sensors are known as the epigenome. While DNA is a huge factor in what is biologically possible, epigenetics largely determines when and how much the DNA “songs” within our genome are played. Our epigenome is connected to all the other aspects of our biology such as the machinery[6] that swims around inside our cell membranes and how many and what type of receptors[7] are present on the surface of cells that perceive and trigger internal responses to the external environment. These epigenetic sensory extensions in humans extend outward from our DNA to such concentrated sensory arrangement structures such as the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. These larger sensory organs work in concert to perceive and relay this context of perceptions back through the individual cells to our epigenome. The epigenome can be viewed as the last communicative step in this process which can then respond by activating or deactivating specific portions of our genes.[8]

Environmental conditions such as the broad cultural climate, localized social relationships and climate conditions are part of the process that shapes whether and when certain aspects of our DNA get expressed or not and how much. In other words; the vast extended epigenetic perception sleeve permeating and extending outward from our DNA turns on and off certain genes. Part of this process is to build and maintain our basic biological frame and the other part is to fine tune our biology to navigate what it perceives as the current environment.

Epigenetics and all the extended sensory elements of biology connected to it have an especially powerful influence on the way our biological body develops to maturity. It is particularly influential in our physiological development.[9] The same way the choice of materials and building practices in the foundation of a building has a far reaching impact on the finished product; environmental influences in the early stages of biological development have lasting effects on our biology. Along with controlling the expression of DNA on what to produce in order to become a heart cell vs. a brain cell, epigenetics can influence what diseases we may be prone to and may be a direct factor of disease in some cases. In fact, there is some research that suggests that many forms of cancer in humans have a stronger link to epigenetic origins than to DNA mutations.[10] Epigenetics can be considered in a very deep respect, the capacity we have to perceive and respond throughout our biology.

When we begin to understand the deeper implications of the relationship between the environment and our biology, we can see that notions like identity, free-will choice and self-awareness are much harder to accurately understand than many of our cultural assumptions have led us to believe. The effects of epigenetics encompass far more than what we think of as the physical aspects of biology, it affects our capacity to perceive and respond in general, including what and how we think, whether or not we can form solid pair bonded relationships, familial and tribal relationships and our general temperament among other things.

One example of lasting effects of epigenetic influence has been directly tied to social influences during infancy in mammals. Kittens and monkeys deprived of sight during early development become permanently blind.[11] Some rat mothers spend more time licking, grooming and nursing their pups than others. Highly nurtured pups by comparison grow up with much calmer dispositions, while those that receive less to grow up to be anxious and otherwise stressed. This appears to be the case in all mammals, including humans. Early developmental environments can make a critical difference in whether our biology is shaped with a high stress cocktail of hormones[12] and receptors or a more calm and self-assured one. It also influences what we are capable of seeing and not seeing. This environmental influence extends to the physical structure of our brain and the chemical cocktail inside our entire body that forms the basis of our identity as well.

The dramatic environmental influences during early development are because our biology searches for environmental queues to understand and adapt to the specific nature of the world in which it will exist. This search for environmental queues extends to individual cells and to our body as a whole. These queues can be picked up in the womb through chemical signals transferred from the mother, or postnatally through a wide variety of sensory signals. The biological direction our physiology is shaped by genes (nature), but it also shaped by our relationship to the environment (nurture). Our specific physiology and personality comes from a broad range of epigenetic influences that give expression to DNA. In other words; some DNA songs can get more air play than others.

One example of this genetic epigenetic relationship is revealed when we are exposed to environmental stress queues in our early development. Stress queues in our developmental environment trigger our biology to devote more developmental energy to constructing elements of reflexive anatomy, stress receptors and hormone production mechanisms among other things. Our developmental biology also sacrifices such things as cognitive intelligence to better adapt to what it perceives as the necessity for a more reactionary existence. Severe environmental stressors such as social deprivation in institutionalized infants results in reduced head size and overall physical growth. It also diminishes the capacity for emotional and social responsiveness, causes attention issues, and diminishes cognitive development and can lead to issues such as depression.[13] These developmental influences on biology within us as individuals have enormous implications on how we relate to ourselves and in the context of society at large.

Other examples of epigenetic influence include behaviors such as those of us who do not maintain solid pair bonded relationships, but instead have multiple partners.[14] This behavioral tendency is cultivated by epigenetic means. Those of us with “short tempers” or distant isolated personalities are often biologically queued to operate this way by environmental factors that happened long before we became aware in any verbal sense. This means that our verbal identity (who we think we are and what we think in general) develops in the context of biology that is far more powerfully shaped by environmental factors.

Because our verbal state of awareness is largely a reactionary consequence of environmental circumstances many of us have a biochemical makeup that is simply insufficient to develop an accurate sense of self-awareness without correcting for the cognitive filters that come with environmental factors. Without enough insight into the deep biological foundations of our identity, our verbal state of awareness is disconnected from the largest portion of the silent behavioral motivators that drive most of our experience of life. We become in effect, blind navigators with a persistent illusion of self-awareness. In this case, the circumstances and relationships we cultivate will be a result of influences that are not based on real choice even though we may believe the contrary. In actuality our lives will be more like that of a billiard ball moving solely according to happenstances outside the view of our illusory state of self-awareness – zombies, unable to transcend the stripes of happenstance because we do not even know that we do not know our true selves.


[1] A third leg of the influences on our biological makeup is chance. An example of this happens at a cellular level due to Brownian motion (also called paresis) which can randomly distribute cellular organelles at the point of  cytokinesis. (When a cell divides into two) These organelles can have structural variables that can affect the function of the divided cells differently.

[2] The development and maintenance of biological organisms is affected by many types of chemical reactions that can switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations. Epigenetics studies these reactions and the various factors that influence them.

[3] DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid which is a chemical instruction manual for biological organisms.

[4] For a greater view of this music perspective of biology read “The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes” by Denis Noble

[5] DNA can also have some effects on self-expression such as what is known as the Alu sequence (Arthrobacter luteus) which is thought to have a role in regulating gene expression, but this is in concert with an external RNA signal recognition particle known as 7SL, 6S, ffs, or 4.5S RNA. There may be instances where certain aspects of gene expression are self-regulated, but for practical purposes, elements external to DNA that have an impact on gene expression are treated here as being epigenetic in nature.

[6] Inside of cells are molecular machines called organelles that have specific functions. Sometimes they have their own membrane like the cell itself does. For instance; mitochondria are organelles within human cells that have their own DNA and epigenetic features.

[7] Cell receptors are specialized proteins that pierce the cell membrane (skin) and are specifically shaped to receive certain molecular shapes flowing through the fluids outside the membrane. Insulin receptors are an example of this communication process broadly called cell signaling. In human biology signaling molecules include hormones, neurotransmitters, cytokines, growth factors and cell recognition molecules. These molecules attach to receptors and trigger certain activities within the cell depending on what they are. (called signal transduction)

[8] This description is meant to illustrate the general theme of the relational dynamic between the genome and the epigenome. It is not meant as a hard and fast rule that applies in every case all the time.

[9] Environmental influences that affect physiological structure have maximum influence during the stages when those developmental processes are under way. These key developmental periods are sometimes called “critical” or “sensitive” periods because of their importance in shaping development and because they are more sensitive to environmental influences compared to other stages of life.

[10] See “Epigenetic influence and disease” by  Danielle Simmons, Ph.D. http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/epigenetic-influences-and-disease-895

[11] See “The postnatal development of the visual cortex and the influence of environment” Nobel  Lecture,  8  December  1981  by Torsten N. Wiesel

[12] Cortisol and norepinephrine are examples of stress hormones, but there are many other factors that shape our biological disposition to stress. The number and location of receptors in the body as well as diet and other factors can contribute to the overall biological disposition to stress.

[13] For more information read “The caregiving context in institution-reared and family-reared infants and toddlers in Romania” by  AT Smyke, SF Koga, DE Johnson, NA Fox, PJ Marshall, CA Nelson, CH Zeanah. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2007; 48(2):210–218. Also read “Early childhood adversity and adolescent depression: the mediating role of continued stress” by N. A. Hazel, C. Hammen, P. A. Brennan and J. Najman.

[14] For more information read “The Neurobiology of Pair Bonding” by Larry J. Young and Zuoxin Wang

The Thin Layer of Skin between Us

Have you ever wondered why and how we feel empathy toward each other? How about why and how those of us that feel little or no empathy are the way they are? It seems it may have something to do with our skin and a group of brain cells called mirror neurons.[1] It should come as no surprise that our skin and our brain are in a conversation with each other. This bidirectional communication is how we know to pull our hand away from a hot surface, or why it feels so good to caress the silky smooth fur of a beloved pet. As it turns out, empathy travels these same biological highways. Something profoundly interesting is what happens when this communication channel is interrupted.

Mirror neurons are located primarily in the motor areas of the brain.[2] They are thought to help us to understand the actions of other people, and to learn new skills by imitation. This would make complete sense if it was the end of the story, but apparently it is not. While we typically use these brain cells to observe but not actually feel or act out the sensations of other beings, when our own sensory equipment is muted by anesthesia, we actually begin to feel the sensations of other beings we observe.[3] What does this mean? It could mean that the only thing separating us from recognizing that we are all part of the same body is a thin layer of skin.


[1] See “The Mirror-Neuron System” By Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero

[2] In humans mirror neurons have been located in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

[3] See “Immediate Interpersonal and Intermanual Referral of Sensations Following Anesthetic Block of One Arm” by Laura K. Case, MA; Reid A. Abrams, MD; Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, MD, PhD. Website http://cbc.ucsd.edu/pdf/CaseBrachial.pdf

Breaking Destructive Behavior Patterns

When we are under pressure, research shows that we tend to move toward our familiar environment.[1] We associate what is familiar with what is safe. We are compelled to run to this familiar place in a stressful situation. Some of us have familiar places that are filled with relational poisons. As a consequence, we can become trapped in a vicious circle of stress followed by a stress inducing familiar place. Still others may have stumbling blocks that emerge because of a particular familiar place that is not applicable as a safe zone to every situation. Eating may be a familiar zone. It can conjure up images of comfort, safety and nourishment. This is not a problem unless an extended period of stress arises, which can lead to eating more. This can be followed by the stress of gaining weight which can lead to a spiral of increasing obesity.

This notion of how familiar places effects behavior also gives us a deeper view into why social relationships that fall on hard times can be so difficult to emerge from. Feelings of raw emotion can lead to behaviors that are not aligned around dealing with real issues, but simply flights to the familiar. The things we do to run for safety can sometimes contribute to relational stress or trigger a spiral of the relationship to the breaking point. Familiarity can be a comforting friend, but it can also be a vicious feedback mechanism that leaves us trapped in a prison. Our familiar environments must be handled with care, especially in times of stress.

With this “familiar” lens we can begin to see why some of us are launched out into the world with the deck stacked so heavily against us. Families that have relational climates characterized by getting from each other, rather than reciprocal giving, poison the ability of children to form bonds of trust and nourishing relationships. This kind of toxic developmental womb often produces one of two personalities; “the enabler” who thinks that everyone’s pain and misery, even if self-made or inflated beyond reason, is their personal responsibility, or “the narcissist” who has great expectations for everyone else coupled with unquenchable wants. Neither of these extremes is a recipe for developing intimate fulfilling relationships. As a consequence, both the enabler and the narcissist are in a perpetual state of frustrated hunger for authentic relationships. This hunger drives up the stress, which throws them into the familiar – which is toxic, which is stressful – again a vicious circle.

One of the most important aspects of dealing constructively with stress is to first decide on what our response is. This sounds simple, but choosing a response to stress, rather than letting the automatic mechanisms take over is not an easy proposition. Cultivating a discipline in the midst of the strong currents of habit can be a real challenge, but it is a necessary cost to move toward an intentional state of being, rather than one that is buffeted by the winds of happenstance.

How do you think we can address the toxic bonds formed by flights to the familiar from a broader cultural perspective?


[1] “Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity” by Ab Litt, Taly Reich, Senia Maymin and Baba Shiv