Power In Your Hands

expectations

Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.

 

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

This remarkable article, “What if Age is Just a Mindset?”, about the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, ran this week in the New York Times. Its basic idea – that our minds have more power over the youth and health of our bodies than we’ve dared to imagine – is one that is near and dear to me and my work in ways that any readers of this blog already know.

[Langer]’s one of the people at Harvard who really gets it…That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and in our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand.

Langer – a plainly dynamic and driven woman from the Bronx who reminds me not a little of Ilana Rubenfeld in this profile – has done experiments throughout her career that show the ways that our mindset can profoundly affect our physical health. Over time, “she came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological ‘prime’ — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.”

Perhaps the most famous of these experiments occurred in 1981, when Langer took a group of people in their 70s, and put them in a temporary time-warp: for five days, they lived, behaved, and were immersed in an environment that mirrored 1959. They were asked not just to reminisce, but to speak and behave as if they were 22 years younger. At the end of the five days, by several biological metrics, “they were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.”

They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.

In the course of many years of work, Langer has continued to find that “mind-set manipulation can counteract presumed physiological limits,” with the ultimate goal being to “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”

Like Rubenfeld Synergists, Langer also places a strong importance on mindfulness, “on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual‘ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

The implications of her work are profound for those of us who work in the knowledge that when we help shift people’s relationship to their bodies, we can help them change how their bodies move in the world – and therefore, how rich and engaged their lives are.

Read the whole article and marvel at the implications here.

 

More and more articles lately on consent culture and how to raise a generation of people who are secure in their own bodily autonomy, and respect others’ as well. Here’s one I liked this week: Why I Will Never Tell My Daughter to Give You a Hug.

In short: forcing kids to hug and kiss or be hugged and kiss when they don’t want to is a seemingly innocent part of an overall culture where we’re made to believe that our bodies are not our own.

If there’s one thing I’d like every child on the planet to learn and internalize, it is this:

Your body is yours. It is your home, your best friend, and the physical instrument of your will and your heart. If someone violates it, that is wrong.

In my work with clients, I try to help them connect with that place in themselves where their bodies – which they may see as burdens, as betrayers, as sites of pain, as limiting lumps of clay – are in fact their healers, their guardians, their homes, and their places of possibility. Having and feeling control over when and how you are touched is a huge part of the process of bringing a body back together with the mind that inhabits it.

Contact me if this sounds like something you could use help with. I look forward to hearing from you.

I stumbled across this entire series a few days ago. The first part is about how women often experience sexism. This second part, below, is about how boys and men are affected.

While I powerfully related to the part about women’s experiences, the part about men’s really touched me. From my time in high school, when I took it upon myself to defend my gay best friend from relentless bullying, through today, where I work with so many men who have spent their lives in a culture that has made them feel they must live up to unrealistic ideals of masculinity, and, like so many women, are trying to find their own value in the bodies and minds and hearts that they have.

The artist is Rasenth at Tumblr.

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

In anticipation of my talk on embodied consent in September, I’m going to writing a lot about consent in this space. I’m away until August 10, so for the next two entires, you’ll be getting reruns. Here’s an oldy but goody that practically went viral when I first posted it.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.

Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.

***

Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.

 

Since the Fourth of July weekend is coming up, I figured I’d blog a little early and leave you all with something inspiring to take you into it.

In case you haven’t seen them yet, here are two great videos put together by the Rubenfeld Synergy Training Institute. The first, What Is RSM?, was filmed at the Omega Institute while I was in the training, and features my teachers Noël Wight and Joe Weldon, plus Ilana Rubenfeld herself, talking about the work and demonstrating a little of it. The second, Why Befriend Your Body?, was filmed last year, led by another great teacher of mine, Theresa Pettersen-Chu, and features a bunch of clients talking about what Rubenfeld Synergy has done for them.

Both are pretty fabulous, and give a simple idea of what this work is all about. Give them a look – each is less than five minutes long!