The term philosophy typically conjures up dry, intellectual concepts and ideas about the meaning of life. Yet when we read biographies or autobiographies, we may experience great drama and mystery resulting from the protagonist’s uncompromising philosophical and moral principles. When I reflect on my life’s story, I see the development and evolution of my philosophy and the consistent threads or themes throughout. These threads reveal three major drives:
• A compelling desire to understand what makes us tick.
• Alleviating suffering and promoting well being.
• Making our oneness visible.
My objective is to share with you the unfolding of my philosophical journey with the intention of showing you how I developed my current model for working with people. I believe that as I take you through my process you will have a better appreciation of the potential value and power of this model. My ultimate goal is to expose as many people as I can to this paradigm with the purpose of teaching them how to apply its principles to their lives. Its basic precepts include seeing human beings as a work in progress; moving us from egocentric survival mechanisms toward more conscious, compassionate and creative entities; understanding what is blocking our capacity to move toward a peaceful, harmonious existence, and providing tools that will expedite our movement forward. While this is very much a work in progress, at this juncture in human evolution this model truly contributes to bringing out the best in us: our capacity for compassion, generosity, and creativity.
Making Our Oneness visible – Human Beings are basically good
If you read my story then you would know that it all began with the event on the bus when I was a little girl, feeling and experiencing the oneness of us all. It provided me with a lens, a perspective – we are all the same- which opened me up to feeling and understanding myself and those around me. Perspective: we all have one. Little do we know how our perspectives not only shape but actually create our lives. In my case, what I said on the bus that day opened my heart to experiencing people from a trusting, loving space. I am still learning to fully appreciate its impact on my life. What is clear is that my open caring nature invited others to be the same with me, thus creating a positive feedback loop. And, whenever people were not kind or open with me, I assumed there was something preventing them from being that way, and I did not take it personally. I came to rely on my inner truth to guide me; I discovered my core, my foundation.
My core informed me that although each of us possesses unique physicality and personality, underneath it all we are all the same. We are all human, driven by similar needs and desires, doing the best that we can with what we have. As much as there is no denying the hateful and destructive behaviors we are capable of, I was always in touch with the basic goodness residing in me. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling us that human beings are basically bad and that the Ten Commandments were given to us by God so that we can control our evil nature. My reaction was instant rejection of that notion. I thought to myself: “I am not bad. And I am human. If I am not bad and I am human, then no human is bad.”
Evil exists – How can good prevail?
Armed with that conviction, yet confronted by the reality of the pain and suffering we can and do cause ourselves and others, I was compelled to find out why our innate goodness is not manifesting more readily. There was this darkness in us and there was a light in us, and I wanted to understand why the darkness comes, why the light comes, how we can make the light come in the darkness – these were all questions I had.
Finding the answers to these questions became my life’s mission. Like a mystery adventure, my work was to research, investigate and study as much as I could about human nature, its origins, its design and its development.
Formal inquiry into what makes us tick: Integration of different disciplines
The first few pieces of the puzzle came together when I went to college. My desire to discover the whole of us, the darkness and the light, obliged me to pursue and remain open to any and all information that might shed light on what makes us tick. I studied psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology and philosophy. It quickly became apparent how competitive and combative different fields can be with each other, especially in psychology. It was remarkable to learn how at odds Freudian, Behavioral, Cognitive, Humanistic and Neuropsychology were with one another. Each discipline seemed to assert that it comprised a complete system of thought for understanding human behavior. For me, however, it was clear that each field had a piece of the truth and that none of them had the whole truth. Freudians’ unconscious and defense mechanisms; Behaviorists’ study of conditioning and learning; Cognitive’s emphasis on how our thoughts shape our beliefs; Humanistic’s focus on our positive attributes and Neuropsychology’s understanding of how our neurophysiology affects our perceptions and actions — all these resonated for me as parts of a greater whole.
I began to note the many different variables that shape us. Then when I took Anthropology, Sociology and Philosophy, I saw how each one was revealing yet more segments of our humanity. In Anthropology I learned about our biological, cultural and linguistic evolution. Sociology taught me about the development of social structures, relations, interactions, religion, modernity and family. Philosophy gave me the progression of our thinking, our laws and God.
Next level of Integration
By the time I started Social Work School I had developed a good grasp of the multi-layered and complex nature of human development. Social Work’s emphasis on viewing and understanding the human being in his environment significantly expanded my lens. In addition to assessing the psychological, sociological and cultural context, I also had to evaluate the role that the family, economic and health systems played in influencing the state of the individual. If a person is poor or doesn’t have a job that will greatly affect her psyche. If he is physically sick, it will impact his mental health. If she is involved in an abusive relationship, that’s another factor; and so on.
I came to see how the study of the psyche must include an assessment of all the variables that are impacting it. It’s not as simple as the Freudian model of: “his mom did this or her dad did that.” That is an important piece of it; it is one of the many factors which affect the development of a human being.
The role of neuroscience
More pieces of the puzzle came together at my first job out of social work school. Working in a psychiatric hospital in the research unit studying the neurobiology of schizophrenia, depression and bi-polar disorders gave me a firsthand experience with how the neurotransmitters in our brains impact our moods and thoughts. I began to get an inkling of the critical role that chemistry plays. As I continued with my quest, I learned a lot more about this factor, and it has taken on a whole new level of importance.
Integrating theory into practice
It was in the Mobile Crisis Unit that these threads began to coalesce into the tapestry that ultimately became my life’s work. Because the Unit serviced individuals from all walks of life, facing any and all conditions and issues humans can face, I was able to see how all the pieces fit. Whether I worked with an individual with bipolar disorder, or was debriefing someone who just experienced the trauma of losing a child in a plane crash or being raped, I had a chance to see how the multitude of factors influenced their psyche. When working with abusive parents I could see the immediate repercussions on their children; when closely working with a homeless person I was able to assess the events and decisions that led him to that point. Many years of working in this setting under so many different conditions solidified much of my understanding of what makes us tick. All along I was reaching to them from my heart and honoring them as whole human beings.
As I continued to learn and grow professionally, I was also growing emotionally and spiritually. While I had been strongly connected to Spirit throughout my childhood and young adulthood, my faith and my connection was almost completely shattered at 31 when my best friend, also named Ronit, died from cervical cancer. I wanted to die; it almost sent me back to the time when I was a teenager and I just couldn’t see the purpose of living. I emerged out of that deep depression through reading a book: How Can I Help by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. This book expanded my spiritual horizon and put me on the path to a more formal inquiry into spirituality. I started reading, attending lectures, workshops and meditation classes. I studied living and deceased teachers and leaders from all religious and spiritual traditions.
My spiritual quest brought me to the realization that at the core of all spiritual and religious traditions, there is a common light– the same thing that I experienced on the bus that day. There is a reality beyond the physical world; it is the source of the Oneness of all. Connecting to that reality requires that we see beyond the physical, the pain, the conflict and duality. It requires us to recognize our ultimate nature, our participation with Spirit: its goodness and creative force. When we do, when we awaken to our true nature, a feeling of compassion arises that compels us to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings.
In the course of my spiritual studies I worked closely with several accomplished teachers whose knowledge and values inspire many people. What surprised me is that some of these very accomplished spiritual leaders exhibited petty and egocentric behaviors in their day to day lives. This confounded me, and raised the persistent question of how we humans can be capable of such light and darkness at the same time. I found the answer to this question through my reading of Ken Wilber’s work. Among many of his wonderful teachings, he describes the different lines of development we grow through. Essentially, we are comprised of four major aspects: our physiology, our intellectuality, our emotionality, and our spirituality (body, mind, heart and soul). Each of these has its own independent developmental process. These lines have their own rates of development in each individual. Thus, one individual may be highly developed intellectually or spiritually but be emotionally arrested. This would explain why so often I would encounter a truly inspirational individual, yet find him or her to be a self-centered person.
This also held true when I studied many of the great teachers’ lives. While they each demonstrated many laudable qualities: Socrates’ pursuit of truth and wisdom, Mother Teresa’s compassion, Mandela’s courage, Martin Luther King’s faith and vision, and Gandhi’s patience and love, they also exhibited some weakness in their own personal lives. Clearly with all of our individual accomplishments, we are all a work in progress.
Understanding our darkness
I came to understand how and why we are a work in progress as I began to delve deeper into the workings of the brain. Over and over again I kept observing that when my clients were not threatened by something or someone, their kind and loving nature would readily come out. It was only when they were feeling threatened that their behavior could become mean spirited and irrational. Further examination yielded that there were two major forces inside them: a reactive force, and a creative force. It became clear to me that these two forces were part of the continuum of our evolutionary process. The whole picture finally clicked for me: our darkness arises out of the wiring of the prehistoric portions of our brains.
Evolution and Brain Wiring
At this juncture in human evolution, a large part of our perceptions, emotions and behaviors are still greatly influenced by the old structures in our brain. Within our brains there are three different major sections: The reptilian, limbic and neo-cortex. As animals became more complex, new structures were added surrounding the old ones. The earliest brain is the reptilian, which is reflexive. Its primary interest is the body and its survival. The next layer to emerge was the limbic system. Its first concern is also survival, but with a deep emotional component. It, too, is reactive. The last and highest part is our neo-cortex. It is responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination and consciousness. It can perceive and process more information which allows it to respond rather than react.
Our problem is that we don’t appreciate the significant role the primitive brains’ wiring, which has been around for hundreds of millions of years longer than the neo-cortex, plays in our everyday feelings and actions. They are still very active within us, vying for control with our higher brain; pitting their ingrained programs against the flexible responses of the new one. Their reflexive, repetitive and unconscious nature is wired within us. Our tendency to be reactive and fall into dysfunctional routines comes from these parts of our brain. They exert great influence over our behaviors whether we realize it or not. Since their primary concern is with our survival, their perceptions and reactions are generally fear based. Consequently our capacity to perceive, think, reflect and respond thoughtfully is significantly hindered and/or distorted by their wiring. This explains why developing along the emotional line is so challenging for us.
Most people would rather live somebody else’s life than speak their truth and risk being rejected.
Since our minds are more complex than animals’ this survival fear gets unconsciously wired into our perceptions and emotions when we are children. A young child’s natural helpless and undeveloped state renders him easily threatened by his environment. Children perceive anger or criticism as acts of rejection, which triggers a sense of abandonment. For the child this is tantamount to a physical survival threat. Given that children are inexperienced and are frequently corrected and criticized, their psyches are continually trying to manage this onslaught of threats. They develop an unconscious and complex defense system to cope with the emotional pain and fear they experience. As the child grows, these ingrain more deeply and become part of the grown up mind system. Consequently, most of us in the developed world experience a background hum of some kind of threat. The instinctual life and death fear in the animal has been replaced in the average human being by “If I get rejected or abandoned I will not survive.”
A new frontier
At this point I had a comprehensive view of what it means to be human on so many layers and levels; how the psychological, sociological, anthropological, familial, cultural, political, economic, neurobiological, and spiritual perspectives interact to shape the human being. From this comprehensive approach, I developed techniques to rewire individuals’ psyches to free us from our irrational survival fear reactions.
I start by assessing my clients’ developmental stages along each of the different lines: body, mind, heart and soul. The emotional line invariably is the one that is causing the most distress, as it manifests in their relationships with themselves, their partners and with close family members. Taking their developmental stages into account, I show them how their childhood fears created certain habitual defensive patterns that continue to dominate their brains’ programming. Once essential for the child coping with a frightening world, these unconscious, repetitive, habitual defense behaviors now interfere with the adult’s capacity to respond effectively in life.
My clients become aware of the ways in which they react to the world from the lens of their childhood fears, and how this prevents them from accurately perceiving what is really happening. They discover how vulnerable and powerless they feel much of the time and how these feelings bring out the worst in them. Their ability to objectify these processes gives my clients space to disengage from their emotions. The various rewiring tools and practices I provide enable them to better intercept their habitual reactions and replace those with more healthy and productive responses. Over time they are able to release their irrational fears, intercept their habitual reactions, and respond objectively to their environment.
Now that my clients are no longer investing so much time managing their fears and the resulting consequences, they have a quiet space in which they can hear their highest truth. As their rewiring practices strengthen they continue to embody more of the generous, creative and loving individuals they truly are.
The speed with which I achieve these results is greatly dependent on their level of self awareness and whether I can work with other members of their family, particularly their significant other. Because the behavioral patterns are habitual and unconscious, it is difficult for individuals to catch their automatic reactions. The more awareness an individual has, the faster he can move into the interception and rewiring phase. Whenever I can, I invite other family members to work with me and each other. This way I can get them all on the same page, and show them how to reflect to each other their automatic reactions. Because they are all interested in growing and rewiring, they are more equipped to receive these reflections and use them to intercept their reactivity. This accelerates the rewiring process.
The Brain That Changes Itself
What is particularly exciting to me right now are the incredible breakthroughs in Neuroscience. These breakthroughs establish the scientific principles that explain the life-changing results I have been getting with my clients over the past decade. New scanning technology conclusively reveals the brain’s capacity to rewire and the implications are staggering. A recently published book, The Brain that Changes Itself, recounts the extraordinary applications and results that scientist are reporting in patients with neurological disease. The case studies describe in detail the brain’s capacity to rewire, including healing stroke victims, rejuvenating aging brains and helping people overcome emotional and learning disorders. This new science not only reinforces my work with clients, it is compelling me to become a driving force to expand its implication through my work. The New York Times review of this book says it best:
“…Mind-bending, miracle- working, reality-busting stuff, with implications…not only for individual patients with neurologic disease, but for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history.”