Big men do cry – and it saves lives

Offshore_oil_drilling_inspection

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

“Exhaustion is the body working to find comfort in a discomforting world.”

Two days ago, when I heard of the mass shooting in Orlando that has since then been an unavoidable theme in every waking moment of my life, my first response was that shot to the heart, punch in the chest sensation that then slowly seeps down into my stomach. The horror, dread, rage and sadness the news sparked in me slid down and settled like an unwelcome houseguest, and as with such a houseguest, I quickly became inured, complacent. Numb.

So many deaths and terrible acts have happened in the past few years. I’ve written here about the difficulty of facing the reality of such atrocities more than once, and found myself, after Sunday morning, again thinking about how to address this kind of event. This one, in particular, hits close to home: I identify with queer community enough to think of this crime as a strike against my larger sense of family. Yet I still cannot summon the pain and anger that are required to take action. In the face of such things, numbness – exhaustion, resignation – is one of the only tolerable responses available.

An article from Medium this morning, called “Against Numbness,” says many of the things I cannot say myself today. “Exhaustion is sensible,” writes Emma Roller, “it makes perfect sense. Exhaustion is your mind shielding your body from succumbing to a deeper horror, adrenaline numbing your pain.” Enough work with trauma – my own and clients’ – has taught me this: our bodies are very good at helping us manage overwhelming feelings by suppressing them. When our bodies are in a state of injury or illness profound enough that the pain signals are no longer of use as an alarm system to let us know we need help, our bodies go into shock. When an event happens that is so unthinkable that the emotions around it threaten to destroy us, we also say that we are “in shock.” When the trauma is repeated so often that the body no longer believes there is a safe place it can go to, the shock becomes embedded, becomes numbness.

As a nation, at this point, I believe that we are in this state. The same way that we all stared at our TV screens, transfixed, watching the planes slam into the Twin Towers over and over in 2001, we now refresh our Facebook pages, looking for more reactions to the news, more stories, more details. It is a deeply human response: looking for knowledge, for connection, for something to make sense of the senseless. But in practice it becomes an act of numbing, of self-soothing. It makes us feel like we’re doing something, when in reality we feel helpless. This, too, is extremely natural. But as Roller reminds me this morning, “Your exhaustion — your questioning if the pain is worth the gain — is the most effective tool the status quo has in its toolbox.” She closes with an imprecation to remember, and suggests a way forward out of our feelings of helplessness:

Lean into your pain. Don’t neglect it. Remember the feeling of numbness, but don’t succumb to it. The victims and their friends and families deserve not to be forgotten. The news cycle will wash over their stories, but you can choose not to abandon them. Be vigilant with your own feelings — not just for the victims, but for yourself. Never accept that this is how we have to live in America today.

I don’t know if I’m strong enough, on this day, to do this. But I like having it here as a reminder. As my partner goes to work at his queer-community-related job, where they have posted a security guard and locked the doors; as I resist the urge to refresh my Facebook page; as I go through the daily motions of my own life and try not to succumb to the fear that someone I love may be next, I will return to this. I will try to let my body move the pain of this instead of holding it, to feel the loss instead of shrugging it off, to move through exhaustion into action.

Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

Lovely day at the Theosophical Society's Day of Healing and Insight

succulentI wanted to take a moment this week to that Janet Kessenich and Carolyn Romano at the Boston Theosophical Society again for asking me in to do their Day of Healing and Insight last Saturday! I got to put my hands on some people, help them listen to themselves, bring some relaxation and calm, and help most of them tune in to what’s really important for them right now.

It’s always interesting to do short sessions like that (these were 25 minutes start to finish). I feel like I had a better time containing them this time than I did a couple years ago when I did the summer event. Part of that was due to the help of my mentor Joan Brooks, who gave me great ideas for making RSM effective in such a brief window: focus it on one question the client is coming in with. Keep bringing it back to the body. Have them notice how they feel when they get on the table and how they feel before they get up. Ask them how the feelings they are having will help them in their lives.

It was useful and powerful, and I’m pleased that I had the opportunity. I hope that more folks will go and check out their events.

Lovely day at the Theosophical Society’s Day of Healing and Insight

succulentI wanted to take a moment this week to that Janet Kessenich and Carolyn Romano at the Boston Theosophical Society again for asking me in to do their Day of Healing and Insight last Saturday! I got to put my hands on some people, help them listen to themselves, bring some relaxation and calm, and help most of them tune in to what’s really important for them right now.

It’s always interesting to do short sessions like that (these were 25 minutes start to finish). I feel like I had a better time containing them this time than I did a couple years ago when I did the summer event. Part of that was due to the help of my mentor Joan Brooks, who gave me great ideas for making RSM effective in such a brief window: focus it on one question the client is coming in with. Keep bringing it back to the body. Have them notice how they feel when they get on the table and how they feel before they get up. Ask them how the feelings they are having will help them in their lives.

It was useful and powerful, and I’m pleased that I had the opportunity. I hope that more folks will go and check out their events.

Trying to manage pain? F*** it!

Research shows that swearing helps us to manage pain better. We’ve all had the experience of dropping something on our foot and yelling out a few choice Anglo-Saxon words. Scientists used to believe that doing so focused us more on the negative, and therefore decreased tolerance of pain. New research, however, shows that on the contrary, people who swore while experiencing pain were able to tolerate it for longer, and reported feeling less pain than those who repeated a neutral word.

swearing-294391_1280I’m reminded of a practice client I had a long time back, who was having an intense emotional experience in her life. Standing at her head, I asked her what she was aware of, and her answer was “F*** it!” Encouraged by this plainly authentic response, I mirrored it to her, encouraging her to allow that feeling to flow. Turned out that phrase was everywhere inside her, needing to get out, be felt, and be voiced.

This research brings a new dimension to that session: the idea that giving someone permission to spout profanity when in extremis can help not only release the painful emotions, but make doing so less painful. Anger, too – often associated with such outbursts – can be a powerful way to feel some control over something that hurts.

If the body speaks in metaphors, then swears are one way for the body to release steam. Nice to see work being done on how our use of language relates to our physical and emotional experience.

Pain and pleasure as emotions

On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.

It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.

What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.

When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.

These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.

A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.

What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially.  In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.

One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.

Infants are sensitive to pleasant touch

The latest from the “but we knew that, right?” department: a study showing how infants process the sensation of “pleasant” touch – and how young they learn it.

Touch is critical to human development, and in fact, as my friend Christine Kraemer pointed out, most baby mammals will die without it. Much writing has been done on the topic of the crucial role of touch in bonding, healthy development, and general emotional and social health. But it’s always nice to see more detailed studies like these, that begin to examine the mechanisms by which these things work.

Of greatest interest to me was the following quote. For context, the researchers were brushing the infants’ skin with a paintbrush:

Interestingly, infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

This brings powerfully to mind the relationship between the synergist and the client in an RSM session, and how the energy and mood of the synergist communicates through to the client through touch, and vice versa. It’s also remarkable to me that this happened in the research even though the caregivers weren’t touching the infants directly.

Think about what it’s like to be near someone who is warm and calm and welcoming, and then think about what it’s like to be around someone high-strung, nervous, or angry. Mood is contagious, and touch amplifies it. This research seems to show, at least by correlation, that sensitivity can also be contagious.

Read it here.

 

Watching music wake people up

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Scott Allen Jarrett, center, with some of the residents of Compass in Hopkinton

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to do something wonderful with the Back Bay Chorale – a great volunteer chorus I’ve talked about here in the past.  Under the auspices of their new Bridges program, we have been visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities in small groups, singing well-known songs to seniors in all stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Our foray this weekend was to Hopkinton, where 15 of us sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Ave Verum Corpus,” standards like “Moonglow” and “All the Things You Are,” and a sing-along medley of The Sound of Music.  The audience consisted of a cohort of Alzheimer’s patients – this was the first facility we’ve gone to that was entirely a locked Alzheimer’s unit – and an energetic, positive staff.

Our mini-chorus

Our mini-chorus

One sharp old character – a former professor at BU whom the director addressed as “Doctor” – kept asking to see the words of the songs so he could better sing along.  One woman in the front row kept saying “wonderful,” and sang along to the standards, knowing every word.  Others were less responsive, but one woman simply opened her mouth and sang.

The response we received reminded me powerfully of a video I shared in another post, in which an almost entirely unresponsive man is brought to sudden lucidity by listening to a familiar song.  Aw heck, it’s so good, here it is again:

I keep being floored by the effect that music can have on the brains and hearts of people who are watching their lives and memories fade.  After we sang one of the jazz standards, one woman exclaimed, “That takes me back, oh, about 25 years!”  The brightness that came into these people’s eyes, the clarity, was at moments stunning.

I’m looking forward to more of this, and more research on how music can help restore, even temporarily, a person’s sense of self, time, and place.

Why does music make us cry?

Everyone knows how a song can open us to emotion.  Most of us probably have songs that make us cry, songs that make us nostalgic for our youth, songs that make it impossible not to dance.  And as we go into the holiday season, there are doubtless songs that make us homicidal, particularly the ones that get repeated endlessly on piped-in mall music.

Some of this can be attributed to memory and meaning: the song was playing during our first kiss, or the words remind us of a lost love.  But some of it is purely the music itself.  Have you ever had the experience of a particular violin or cello strain cracking you open?  Of certain music making you cry, because, for whatever reason, it aches?

Science is still studying why it’s the case that music can have such a powerful emotional effect.  A recent study showed that listening to music can affect how we perceive neutral human faces: happy music makes us see them as happier, for example.  But why it has this effect is not fully known.

One theory the writer of the Scientific American article linked above has is that music is connected with human movement.  Music, after all, is a series of sounds made possible by human movement: breath, pressure, bowing, pressing keys, strumming strings, striking drums, and so on.  And music inspires us to dance, or to close our eyes and go inside ourselves to listen.  

Ilana Rubenfeld trained as a symphonic conductor at Julliard, and was herself a violinist. Her approach to her work was highly musical, and she knew how powerfully music was connected to emotion.  She saw our bodies as our most valuable instruments, and our lives as ongoing symphonies.  That may sound Pollyannic, but it may actually be literally true, and may be the key to discovering why music is so – literally – moving.

In my sessions, I strive to connect the person I’m working with to their own internal instrument.  To listen to their own breath, to be moved by their own movements (interesting that sections of symphonies and concertos are also called “movements”), to discover what their song sounds like right now.  Some people are more musical than others, but most people can be connected to their rhythms, to the pulse of what makes them human and alive.

To connect with your own rhythm and find your song again, get in touch with me.