Don’t Sit Up Straight: Why Natural Posture May Be Better

natural posture, don't sit up straight, stress relief, trauma relief, body wisdom,

Pondering the skeleton within (Image CC by 2.0 Dreaming in the deep south)

I come from a family of slouchers and after a typical day at the computer I have ample reason to worry I’ll develop the dowager’s hump my grandmother had by the time she was in her late 50s. Worse, my husband recently required back surgery due to longstanding problems after a car accident.

That’s why I’m on a quest to find out all I can about our spines and our posture. It has taken me in some unexpected directions. Here are some crumbs along this trail.

First off, don’t sit or stand up straight. At least not the way we think is correct, with our shoulders back and chins held high. That, my friends, is not remotely natural no matter what your mother or your gym teacher or your fitness coach told you. I learned this from a book with gorgeous photographs of people all over the world engaged in often strenuous tasks, yet moving with posture that is graceful and perfectly supported. The title, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back: Natural Posture Solutions for Pain in the Back, Neck, Shoulder, Hip, Knee, and Foot. The title doesn’t hint at how important this book is for those of us who don’t have back pain, but nonetheless plan to continue using our spines. The author, Esther Gokhale, teaches what she calls “primal posture.” Her book is packed with more than inspiring images. It explains how we can sit, stand, walk, and lie down in ways that contribute to our overall health and well-being. For example, by using a postural method she calls “stretch sitting.” She gives a brief intro in the following video, instruction starts about 4:20.

Next, all the fuss about building muscle doesn’t get to the core of the issue. Toned abs can’t replace strong, well-aligned bones. I learned more about this from another amazing book Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment
by Kathleen Porter Ms. Porter explains that children in the non-industrialized world naturally sit and stand with aligned posture they maintain their entire lives without the neck, spine, and leg problems that plague people in the developed world. She also contends that a child’s naturally good posture supports learning.

Why do we have so many slumped kids and achy adults in industrialized countries? Our fixation on TV and computer screens may be part of the problem. But Ms. Porter thinks it starts earlier. She notes that the design of car seats, strollers, and baby seats work against an infant’s developing posture. (She offers one solution, called a Baby Wedgie.)

I suspect it has something to do with how little free play today’s kids enjoy, a time when they can engage in brain-boosting and spine stretching movement. A recent study of 4 million U.S. preschool-aged children found that almost half were not taken outdoors to play on a daily basis, probably because we’re busy carting those kids around in car seats that incorrectly position their spines. Ms. Porter explains how to raise kids with healthy posture in her book Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It. The following video does a good job of showing how to grow up with naturally aligned posture.

And finally, it’s worth considering how our bodies react to strong emotion.

During frightening, painful, or otherwise highly stressful experiences our bodies are flooded with chemicals preparing us to react physically. Most often our response, in today’s world, is not physical. We aren’t running away from or fighting off predators as our ancient ancestors did, although our bodies respond in the same way (the “fight or flight” response). We staunch our physical impulses and sit still during all sorts of stressors, remaining immobile during a painful medical procedure, while the boss politely tells us we’re going to be laid off, or when our car is nearly hit on the highway. Experts in trauma tell us that mentally processing a frightening or powerfully upsetting experience doesn’t always resolve it. The bodily movements we wanted to take, but didn’t, are still locked within. There they can cause all sorts of long-term problems, including back pain. (Check out what movement can help alleviate this stress.)

I’m still learning about this as I read remarkable books by Peter A. Levine. The first one I waded through is geared more toward physical therapists and psychotherapists, but still highly relevant for the layperson. I stumbled on it initially because I loved the title’s implication, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. It’s one of those books to read with a highlighter in hand. Now I’m reading one of his far more accessible books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, which I heartily recommend. It casts a bright light on experiences adults may consider average, but which can turn into long-term trouble for kids (masquerading as behavior problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression) unless we know how to help them deal with it.

I love the way seeking out information tends to lead us in new, unanticipated directions. I’m still on the lookout for what I can learn about natural posture. And I’m working on sitting as if I had a tail, one that is behind and not under me. I swear this effort makes me look taller than my almost five foot three inch height. See, another unexpected perk!

stress relief, trauma relief, don't sit up straight, natural posture,

Originally published in Wired.

Lollipop Epiphany

child's near death experience, choking on candy, end of life vision,

Image: prelkia.deviantart.com

Jennifer took the second-to-last Dum Dum lollipop in the bag, root beer, leaving me the lime green one. Lime was my least favorite but I didn’t say anything. I pretended to flick open a lighter and held that invisible flame to the end of my lollipop. Jennifer did the same, exhaling around the side just like teenagers did with real cigarettes. We wanted to be older that badly.

Like all the other fourth grade girls we knew, she and I exaggerated. When we walked we went on for miles. When we were thirsty we drank gallons. So of course she said that her older sister Mary Beth would die if she found out that we were not only listening to her records but had also finished the candy. Happy to be playing in Jennifer’s basement, dying was the last thing on my mind.

Jennifer and I danced, whirling around as we sang, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” Suddenly the round green lollipop I was sucking on separated from its cardboard stick. It hurtled to the back of my throat and lodged in my windpipe.

I couldn’t breathe.

My arms flailed as I tried to inhale, make a sound, get Jennifer’s attention. Still, no breath.

Quickly my body slid into a state I’d never experienced. The music played on and Jennifer danced on, completely oblivious. That abstract concept, time, lost meaning as I looked around me. Everywhere there were details I’d never noticed. The texture of the cement block walls, the colors in a blanket tossed over a worn couch, the beauty of my friend. It was all tender perfection.

A kind of knowing completely filled me. Even as my awareness expanded my vision dimmed. The room began to darken. Without making any choice at all I loosened my hold on living. It felt easy, right, and wonderfully peaceful. Just past letting go, I knew a sort of bliss. The body slackening toward the floor no longer seemed like my own.

The last image flickering in my consciousness was my mother’s face. That glimpse activated something I couldn’t explain. Although my mind no longer seemed connected to my limbs, a sensation of strength came into my legs. Instead of dropping to the floor, those legs churned up the stairs as if powered by an engine I didn’t drive. I was outside myself, watching as I wavered at the top step, nearly falling backwards.

Jennifer’s mother appeared just past the door. She took a look at my blue face and bulging eyes. In one swoop she turned me upside down, smacking my upper back hard and repeatedly.

The lime green Dum Dum rolled across the floor.

I gasped.

There were no words for that moment, although I was bursting with emotion. So, like any other fourth grade girl, I said dramatically, “Wait till Mary Beth finds out.”

Jennifer’s mother told me to be more careful about dancing with candy in my mouth. Jennifer put another record on. What had been an ordinary day continued, though I’d seen the veil between worlds.

I never told anyone the last thing I glimpsed back in that basement. Unable to breathe, I saw my mother already grieving my death. No exaggeration, that moment woke me to the rest of my life.

near death experience, child's near death experience, child choking,

Image: Steve Snodgrass

School Violence Led Us To Homeschooling

bullying leads to homeschooling, school violence, guns in school,

(Image: distorted-colours.deviantart.com)

We became homeschoolers suddenly. One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home right before the first class of the day. The teen who’d been harassing him had just showed him a gun, saying it would be his last day to live.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but remove him directly from his classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year my son told us what he heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed. I assumed they were baseless.

My son’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kid. My son used sarcasm as his defensive weapon. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to the taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted my son told me these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if groups of teens assembled, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down, admitting that it might be safer if we homeschooled. My son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. Plus, I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our four-year-old already knew how to read but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced homeschooling kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how profoundly they are motivated by their own interests, and how those interests translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold. The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

suddenly homeschooling, school versus homeschool, school violence,

(Image: artamusica.deviantart.com)

This piece originally appeared on Wired.

Where Fascination Leads

child's interests, toddler's fears show inclinations, fear is fascination,

Born with uniqueness.

“I didn’t say I liked it. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” Oscar Wilde

My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.

As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.

For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.

One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.

He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.

The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.

Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Itzhak Perlman, now one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.” Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.

What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life? 

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

walking cures trauma, right way to walk, walk for inspiration, body-based trauma recovery, trauma recovery, depression recovery,

jodicox.deviantart.com

Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?

resources

Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick

Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

Staring Down Worry

mystical experience of fear, metaphysical encounter with darkness, overcoming evil, facing worry, staring at Satan, prince of darkness in my room,

Image courtesy of pitrisek.deviantart.com

Something happened the night Worry appeared to me.

Some of us are chronic worriers. There’s probably an adaptive reason for this, since humans who envisioned potential dangers would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes. But saber-toothed tigers aren’t lurking by our front doors these days. I know for a fact that worry generates misery while producing absolutely no benefit. Giving it up, however, isn’t an easy matter. Worry runs in our heads like movies of disaster to come, unbidden yet powerful, making some of us wary of the smallest choices and some of us heedless of real danger.

I worried from the earliest time I can remember. It may have an adaptive start in my life too. As a tiny child I spent many nights struggling to breathe through asthma attacks. When I was five years old I got a bit of food caught in my esophagus and stayed awake all night spitting my saliva into a bowl, since even a moment’s inattention caused it to run down my windpipe and sent me into fits of choking, until a surgeon removed it the next day. The year I turned nine my grandparents all died, catapulting me into years of obsessive worry that everyone else I loved would die too. At 13 I was assaulted by an adult and the focus of my worry widened as I spent years searching for the causes of evil and suffering. Worry continued to be my companion when I hit my 20’s. Each of my babies were born with medical problems. The unknown dangers threatening even the most innocent lives suddenly lived in my house. Chances are my chronic insomnia has roots in all this worry.

One night as I lay awake worrying I had an experience that profoundly changed me. That night I had plenty of things to worry about: serious concerns about my children’s health, our finances, and other problems. Normally I fought off worry with gratitude—focusing on the comfort of my family sleeping safely nearby and the many blessings in my life. But worry was there haunting my mind and hollowing my body.

Suddenly as a car crash, something happened. I know it sounds bizarre but it was as real as the lamp on my desk is now. I became aware of a huge black column next to my bed. It was comprised of the most immense energy I’d ever experienced. It was dark and powerful with a presence that seemed alive and completely aware of my thoughts. I had the sense that it was of such infinite size and strength that it went through the floor and out the roof, stretching far in both directions. I should have been more frightened, but the moment this column appeared I realized, as if the message hit all my cells at once, that I had summoned this darkness.

It was born of my own intense worry. It was a profound lesson that went through me in the way wisdom does, filling not just our brains but also our bodies and souls. Lying there, I resolved to bring forth every ounce of light I could muster.

The instant I thought to do this, whatever that column was disappeared.

I woke my husband to tell him. He kindly assured me that I was nuts. Until this post I’ve only told one other friend. But in today’s atmosphere of worry, I wanted to share this image—of fear so huge that it manifests next to you. It taught me that worry is a kind of unintentional evil. It presupposes things will go wrong. It’s the opposite of faith.

I’m not entirely cured of worrying nor would I ever change those earlier years of worry. They’ve made me stronger, more open to the beauty found just beyond despair, and left me with a positive quest. But ever since that moment, years ago, I have made a conscious effort to reorient myself. Ironically, my family has been through times more difficult than I could have imagined back when this happened—crime, financial hardship, loss, and grief. But I know the antidote—to shine forth with all the light I can. Some days I’m practically a parasite on optimism. But really, if all my moments of hope coalesce into some kind of vision, I can’t wait to see it.

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Healing The Next Generation

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The science of epigenetics shows that the choices we make today will resonate in the minds and bodies of our grandchildren.

How? Each of us has biochemical markers that signal our genes in response to input such as nutrients, toxins, even behavior. As a result potential gene expression is switched on or off.

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Nucleosome Wikipedia

These epigenetic changes persist well after the original stimulus for change is gone. Some of them pass on through generations like biologic memories of what our ancestors ate and breathed, as well has how they felt about their experiences. This also means that our personal choices today can become a living inheritance sent on to those we won’t live to see.

As Duke University genetics researcher Randy Jirtle, Ph. D recently commented,

We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked. Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.

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Much of the research about epigenetics correlates to earlier studies showing that parental stress has a negative and long-lasting effect on their children, often well into adulthood. That’s true of the effect of prenatal stress, parental stress during early childhood,  parental depression, conflict in the home, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. Epigenetics may, in part, explain the strong correlation between these stressors and resulting poor mental and physical health in the next generation.

But there’s good news too. Studies have shown that early nurturance can flip “dimmer switches” on genes related to stress, permanently shaping offspring to be calmer and better able to handle new situations. Healthier too.

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Chances are good that I was born with genes predisposing me to anxiety or depression.  My sorrowful grandmother nurtured my own mother as best she could despite very stressful circumstances. In turn, I was lovingly nurtured and well attached to my parents. As a result, these predispositions were more likely to be dimmed or switched off in me. I hope to carry on this legacy of positive epigenetic changes by gently parenting my children. Epigenetics show us that grandparents and parents can bless children to come (including foster children and adopted children) even if they don’t live to see those children.

As a society, we’ve known for a long time that serious parental stress leaves a legacy of pain into the next generation. Maybe the science of epigenetics will be enough to convince us that parental support and nurturance doesn’t just benefit the child. It also benefits society as a whole.

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Additional resources

Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance by Richard C. Francis

The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

published in Lilipoh spring 2011

The Power of Story: Augusta Speaks

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Isak Dinesen

The woman wrapped blankets around her children, a small boy and a smaller girl. The little ones clamored for their nightly story. It didn’t seem to matter to them that they huddled in what was left of their home. They didn’t seem disheartened after spending another day searching for food. Their mother began the story as she always did, “Not far from here and not long ago.”

The children stepped into the story.

Some of her stories ended the same night they began. Most went on night after night. Each story started with some kind of yearning that turned into a quest. Many times the characters in the story had to step aside to wait or go another way before continuing on. They were confronted by danger, hunger, and riddles. The characters learned to be patient and clever.

Sometimes decisions they made earlier came back to help them or hinder them. In one story they were grateful to find humble roots growing along their path. Weak from starvation the characters dug them up, rinsed them in a nearby stream, and boiled them over a tiny fire. Just as they were finally about to eat some fellow travelers came by asking if they had food to share.

“Careful,” the boy and girl’s mother interrupted the story. “Notice the travelers’ eyes and their hands. Are they thieves? You must show them your strength as well as your kindness. What would you do?”

The boy and girl said they would share. As the story went on these same thieves protected the characters from an enemy but later stole the only stone that warded off a trickster’s wicked prank. When the boy and girl exclaimed that it wasn’t fair their mother explained that the characters saved four lives by sharing the food, which was good, but they’d forgotten thieves could never be trusted. The children nodded as their mother went on with the story.

The characters in the story were always a mother with her boy child and girl child. They weren’t always people. Sometimes they were animals searching for their rightful place in the world. Or elf-like creatures seeking to restore lost magical powers. Or a queen traveling with the prince and princess, gathering clues to unlock a mystery. Often they were joined in their quest by other characters. Some of these characters had wisdom to offer. Others tricked and cheated them. Others ignored them entirely.

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The children protested each night when their mother’s voice grew increasingly hoarse and she finally told them it was time for sleep. They felt as if they’d fallen from the story world. But she always promised there would be more to tell the next evening.

The family spent years waiting. For what, exactly, the children weren’t sure. A better home awaits us, their mother assured them, but it’s a long way away and not all will be easy once we arrive. During the daytime she taught them to speak a language no one else knew. It sounded like birds chirping and scratching on the roofline. Sometimes she taught them songs while they ground grain or chopped vegetables for stew. Mostly she taught them to be wary and watchful. The little ones barely noticed as they got taller except that it was a struggle to keep them in clothes that fit. They rarely had jackets or shoes. Sometimes they had no food either.

The nightly stories grew longer. Sometimes it took weeks to finish one tale. The story’s characters found many obstacles in their way and often, just when the troubles were unendurable and the characters ready to give up, the story would change in ways they couldn’t have imagined. The only thing that seemed to matter was that the characters didn’t lose heart.

Then everything changed. The mother showed the boy and girl a packet she had carefully hidden in the folds of her sweater. “Passports and documents,” she whispered. That very day the family left on their own journey away from the place they’d lived their whole lives. The children had never before encountered such hurry and so many crowded places. They stayed close to their mother as they waited in lines, were scrutinized by men behind tall counters, and had papers stamped. Before long they were strapped into seats on a huge craft. As it began to move the mother told a story. They didn’t know it would be her last.

There were three characters, a mother wolf traveling with a female pup and a male pup nearly as large as his mother. Although they lived in a land filled with sunsets that inspired beautiful wolf songs to rise from every hilltop, they were driven away by something worse than hunger. Their journey took them to a bridge so long they couldn’t see the other side. Behind them were wolves like themselves, thin and desperate. They weren’t sure what kind of creatures lived on the other side of the bridge but still, they were determined to get there. Suddenly in front of them loomed a fearsome beast with no eyes but many claws. He made the bridge shake so hard that they tumbled off, all except for the young male wolf who clung to the underside. He tried to pull himself up as he challenged the beast to fight. The beast loomed over him, roaring loudly with breath that crackled and smoked. Still the young wolf struggled to get back on the bridge. Then he felt something grab his feet from below. He kicked with all his strength but couldn’t loosen the hold. It wasn’t until he looked down that he saw his mother and sister wolves pulling his feet. They hadn’t fallen far. Just below the bridge was a forest of fruit and nut trees with branches reaching nearly to him. But he wouldn’t let go. He hauled himself up for battle. Just then the huge creature stomped down on his paw. His leg curled up at the monster’s touch as if scorched by fire and the wolf fell down, down, down to land on his mother wolf and sister wolf where they crouched in a tree. When he opened his eyes his mother was unable to speak and his sister unable to hear and his leg was twisted.

The story went on through the night. The boy and girl sat enraptured as their mother unfolded a tale rich as legend. The wolf characters trekked through strange forests finding nourishment that slowly began to heal them. Brightly colored birds taught them to fly. When the rocks under their feet started to crumble the wolf family lifted in the air, soaring toward mirrored mountains that appeared in the distance. The mother wolf could now speak in a whisper, the female pup could hear loud sounds, and the nearly grown male pup’s leg was nearly straight. Their fur prickled in fear but their journey had made them powerful in ways they were only now beginning to recognize. By the time they landed they knew that together they were invincible.

The story ended as the craft came to a halt. The girl held back, looking out the window at the unfamiliar surroundings. The mother stood, taking the boy and girl’s hands. “We have arrived,” she said. “No more of my stories. It is time for you to tell stories to me.”

Passengers streamed past them, people whose clothes and skin looked as foreign as mythical creatures. Most of them looked straight ahead but some of them smiled at the family. Their mother said to her children in a voice fierce with pride, “Always remember the word “immigrant.” It means you are one of the strong.”

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